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The Wiki Man

The Wiki Man: Needled by PINs

The phone-hacking scandal may bring restraint to Britain’s redtop journalists and relief to a few thousand minor celebrities but, for the country’s 59.99 million unfamous people, it will merely make technology a little more irritating.

16 July 2011

12:00 AM

16 July 2011

12:00 AM

The phone-hacking scandal may bring restraint to Britain’s redtop journalists and relief to a few thousand minor celebrities but, for the country’s 59.99 million unfamous people, it will merely make technology a little more irritating.

The phone-hacking scandal may bring restraint to Britain’s redtop journalists and relief to a few thousand minor celebrities but, for the country’s 59.99 million unfamous people, it will merely make technology a little more irritating.

Setting the default password for your mobile voicemail as either 0000 or 1234 wasn’t particularly secure, I know, but for the 99.99 per cent of us not being tailed by stalkers or tabloid journalists, it was at least easy to remember.

Within months, I suspect, every new voicemail account will be secured by some random and instantly forgettable PIN. So, on holiday abroad in 2015, we shall suddenly find we cannot access a vital message telling us that our flight home has been cancelled or that our hotel is being attacked by insurgents.


Passwords are like foreign languages — unless you use them regularly, you lose them. Those used weekly are fine. It’s the ones you need only a few times a year which drive you to apoplexy.

What invariably happens is this. An email arrives telling you to check your gas or electricity bill online. But you haven’t a clue what password you chose for this site. You duly request a reminder. What you are sent is not a reminder, however, but the ‘opportunity to reset your password’. I hate this. For when you sensibly choose an old, familiar password, it’s forbidden. ‘Sorry, you have used this password before.’ That’s when you resort to adding random numbers to the end of the old password, so it’s now Eyjafjallajökull22. Three months later the whole sorry cycle begins again.

Why can’t my electricity provider just email me my f***ing bill? Why do I have to remember a password and log in every time I need see my estimated meter reading? The reason, I suppose, is that everyone is forced to adopt the level of security those most neurotic about privacy would demand. Can’t there be an opt-out? Could I not just sign a form to say ‘look, as far as privacy goes, I don’t want people to publish pictures of me naked, but I’m comparatively relaxed about people knowing I’m on Economy 7’.

Since my wife has vetoed my plans to turn the spare bedroom into a cannabis farm, our electricity bill is quite dull. It tells a journalist nothing of interest. I suppose a stalker may one day breathily ring me in the middle of the night to say ‘You’ve been using a lot of therms recently, big boy…’ but that’s a risk I’ll take. The late Jill Dando, bizarrely, had a fan who kept trying to pay her utility bills (later the subject of much fruitless investigation) but, again, I don’t see that happening to me.

Yet while our bills are protected, we often end up revealing all kinds of information about ourselves unwittingly. When you turn off your Wi-Fi when you go on holiday, you may be advertising an empty house — the 21st-century equivalent of a row of milk bottles.

A few years back, my satnav was stolen from my car in a commuter station carpark, along with a spare ignition key to a second car I was selling at the time. I wasn’t especially worried. How would the thieves possibly locate the car to which the key belonged? Too late I remembered: they could simply press ‘home’ on the satnav they had stolen, and receive turn-by-turn directions straight to where it was parked. I dashed home from work that day to be met with a carload of downcast chavs exiting the drive. I had been lucky. The battery in the car was completely flat.

From that time on, I have always set my satnav’s ‘home’ to a place a few miles away. I recommend you do the same.

Rory Sutherland is vice-chairman of Ogilvy Group UK.


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