This story is based on fact. Any similarity with fictitious events or characters is purely coincidental.
It's late fall evening in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic. Social interactions are scarce, but I found myself talking to my former colleague over a beer. We briefly worked together on the same thing, however we never really got to know each other as mere mortals. Professionally she knows her stuff, so joint work was a pleasant experience. Our beer talk was about our everyday lives and it was one of those rare ephemeral moments that stays in your memory for quite some time, and you are not really sure why that is.
– ‘What? You were a radio host?’ I asked, priming myself to judge whether her voice was radio-worthy.
– ‘Yeah! You haven't snoop around, have you?’ Of course it was.
Few months later, during winter, I remembered this piece of our conversation. While being in lockdown, there was plenty of boredom laying around, so I decided to do some snooping around. And damn, did I make a huge mistake.
Today, there are plenty of things that we are wilingly sharing on the internet every day. We want to promote our work, make a dent in the universe, or just argue with strangers on the topic we know very little (or too much) about. Whatever we share, it is kind of a permanent record attached to our names, or if you are lucky, to your pseudonym. Either way, what happens on the internet, stays on the internet. Forever. And to underline the issue, you don't have to go "into archives" and blow the dust of some old metal cabinets with drawers full of yellow folders to see some surprising records. No, you just ask the same guy who you go to with all your problems. It starts wi G-O and it's not God… Yup, Google will happily return any relevant information for whatever search query you have – no moral questions asked.
So you type in the person's name in the search field and boom, there are results. Profiles on various social media, some occurences from your academic or professional life, and sometimes other people with the same name as you have. Nothing out of ordinary. But then, out of the blue, you see a strange search result that takes you to a some kind of list. Every row has three columns – first one looks like some kind of nickname, and the last column is clearly an email. And as you read the middle column row-by-row it hits you. Passwords. Somebody leaked a shitton of passwords directly associated with users' data.
I should have stopped here, but I am dumb and morbidly curious. Of course I found her, that's why we are here right now.
Passwords are a funny thing. I wrote another piece about recovering my mom's Gmail password where I forgot my mom's password and had to "crack" it since I am her personal password storage. I believe that trusting your direct family to keep a tab on your passwords is a widespread phenomenon. If I trust them with my life I should be okay trusting them with my online life. Of course, it's not that simple – there are boundaries which nobody should cross. Not even family or significant other. Nobody. And passwords are there to create these boundaries. Well unless the password gets leaked on the internet without you even knowing. Scary part is that data leaks happen a lot, even to biggest tech companies. Thankfully, there are various services that track these leaks and you can check if you have been affected by it. The most famous is have i been pwned?. Some password managers have this feature built in which is super convenient. Use it.
I thought about that password a lot. Does she know? Should I tell her? Wouldn't I look like a creep? What does that password even mean, why she picked it? I got myself into this weird situation that I didn't know how to handle gracefully. There isn't a manual on how to proceed when you know something you shouldn't know. I wanted to bury my head in the sand, ostrich style, because telling and not telling were equally wrong choices. Usually when I am internally conflicted about something I tend to stall and devour myself with every (im)possible outcome. The worst possible strategy, yes, but my mind greatly prefers it over an external conflict.
This went on for months. We've talked once in a while, and every single time I had to consciously steer away from any topic relating to the leaked password. Ask anybody and everybody will tell you it's hard not to think about polar bear, but eventually it will catch you with your guard down…
After half a year of postponing the inevitable, we were talking in a group setting where mood was mellow and the weather was nice. Over the past few months, everytime I got a chance to talk to her I greatly enjoyed it and this evening wasn't an exception. It takes me a great deal of time until I feel comfortable with someone and I felt I crossed this line, so I was super casual and talkative. During the chat, something reminded me of our beer talk and all following development. With my mood lifted, I told her that I finally did some snooping and I found something that she should know even though she won't like it. She was friendly and told me to stop, but the train was loose and I told her that I know her password. Her reaction was kinda okay, and I guessed she thinks I am just making shit up. I just said the password out loud. It was at this moment he knew he fucked up.
The change in attitude was so palpable that I started to explain that I would never ever use it, but it would be good idea to change it immediatelly. However her reaction was kinda like she was still using it as a master password and revealing that I know it made me an enemy. Looking back, she probably thought that I cracked the password, even though I haven't got to the second page of the Google results. The conversation was dead. After ~20 minutes she thanked me for the party and left.
My self-destructive tendencies kicked in and I consumed an innapropriate amount of substances that were available. This was the end of monday.
Tuesday, I found out that I left a message for my sober self. Basically it said that I shouldn't wait for rectification of the situation… Hey look, a sleuth of polar bears! Wednesday, I went to the office to talk to her. She wasn't there. I even heard from someone that she left after I came, but nobody could confirm it. Huh. Friend got me out for a beer, so I shared my story and ended up wasted. Thursday, even though it was 35°C outside, there was a crippling Polar Bear Parade. Friday was my second attempt. I picked fresh red currants from garden and brought it to the office as a token of apology. She was probably at some meeting, so I just left it on her desk and ran away. Later that day I sent her a message summing up that I am sorry I scared her and that I hope she got the currants which were a compensation for ruined evening. She read it on monday. I bet there was some kind of glitch in the inner workings of the internet – sharks chew an undersea cable, or piece of space debris destroyed a satellite – because the reply never came.
Later I found out that the password was leakead in 2016 (5 years ago) as one of ~100K other passwords. Since then it has been included in multiple other collections. I sent emails asking to take down the original leaked list, but that internet glitch persists because I haven't got reply from them either. If you want to remove these results from Google index, you will find that this type of leaked personal information does not apply for removal.
Thankfully the polar bear is now more shy.
If you got to this point, sincerely thank you. You deserve a reward! The password was always mentioned as "the password" and wasn't really spelled out. You may now reveal the big secret by clicking the button below.