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You say I mustn’t write down my password? Let me make a note of that

Permanent marker works for me

Something for the Weekend, Sir? My desk-side wastepaper basket is full. OK, sure, first world problems and all that, but it’s 8am and I have only just walked in to the office. Why would my bin be full? I haven’t put anything in it yet.

Despite being full, this bin does not contain what an office bin is supposed to contain: there’s no half-full coffee cup, smelly takeaway foil container or rotting banana skin partially hanging down the side. Indeed, upon further investigation, it appears that my wastepaper basket is full... of waste paper.

It has never been in this condition before. Freakier still, a quick check around our flimsy ‘pod’ of desks – aptly named because when you lean on them they squeak like dolphins – reveals that the other bins are similarly chocka. No balls of suspiciously damp cling film, no frantically torn razor-sharp blister packs, no rancid polystyrene soup tubs. Just crumpled sheets of paper and sticky notes. What has been going on?

Everything becomes clear when I check my email. We have been sent a round-robin from IT Support Customer Services Delivery to warn us that keeping user names and passwords on bits of paper anywhere near our computers is deemed a security risk and is now a sackable offence.

Bearing in mind that everyone but your smug columnist actually writes their passwords on sticky notes and decorates their display bezels with them, I wondered why it had taken so long for middle management to do anything about it. One colleague even went full retard and wrote his logins directly on the surface of his desk using a permanent marker – “The cleaners keep rubbing it off if I use an ordinary pen,” he explained – which I remember caused so much dolphinesque squeaking of the entire pod that the only way to shut him up was by tossing him a herring from a bucket and cleaning his teeth with a toilet brush.

The email goes on to state that replacement passwords issued to employees who forget them will no longer be sent via email. Astonishingly, it appears that these forgetful employees keep printing out the replacement password emails and sellotaping them to their displays.

Noble freelancers such as I do not enjoy the luxury of being a institutionalised fuckwit on payroll, so we tend to carry our hundreds of logins around in a variety of readily accessible but non-physical formats. I have heard it said that some even commit them to memory. But life is different for a wage slave.

There was one bloke in the office who had even printed out a sheet containing all his passwords and taped it to the back of his display. When I quizzed him about this, he said by sticking them on the back, they would be “hidden”. In one sense, he was right: they were completely hidden... from him. Everyone else could read them just fine.

Now, I don’t go into this office every day so I missed the buzz but apparently there had been a prior warning earlier in the week. The email that landed in the inbox today simply announced that the company had made good on its threat.

Threat? I wonder what they were threatening. I scroll up and find the earlier email. Ah.

A team of nightshift grunts from IT Support Customer Experience Enablementisation had been sent around the building at 4am, charged with removing all traces of login printouts and sticky notes from users’ pods and demonstratively dropping them in the wastepaper baskets. Hence the bins being full of crumpled paper first thing in the morning. The only reason my bin was full was that my colleagues had so many of their logins taped all over the place that their own bins had filled up already.

This way, the theory goes, employees would realise what happened upon their arrival at work, retrieve their passwords from their bins, feel gravely ashamed of their behaviour and do something about it. In the event, the employees turned up, panicked like shit, ran around shouting with their hands in the air, smashed windows, looted shops, set fire to a BMW and threw rocks at the police.

I am reminded of those clear-desk policies that used to be popular back in the Nineties and Noughties. Younger readers may not have heard of these so allow me to explain. You would be required to ensure that your desk was clean and tidy before you left the office for the night, otherwise the cleaners were obliged to gather all your stuff and chuck it out.

Oh, I can remember many a joyful morning spent outside in the pouring rain, rummaging through a skip out the back, tearing open bin liners and hunting for chucked-out page film that was due to go down to the printers that very day.

As you can imagine, clear-desk policies were invented by high-level managers who have no real work to do or have PAs to handle it for them. I know this because one of my first jobs was as a PA to a publisher: his desk was always clean and empty because all his shit was piled high on mine.

It was eventually pointed out to me that you can turn an untidy desk into a clean desk, no matter how much stuff you have on it, simply by arranging everything at right-angles.

At one stage, while editor of one of those 1,000-page computer magazines back in the day (sigh), I had to manage a desktop that supported a stack of paper more than a foot high, along with various sticky notes, scrap messages and loose stationery items that wouldn’t fit in the drawers because my predecessor had lost the key. I found that thumping the paper into a squared stack and lining up my pens, ruler and stapler in parallel, it passed the clear-desk check without fail.

These days, I carry everything with me and leave nothing behind. This is just as well since most of my clients are moving towards a hot-desking approach, which means you have no idea from one day to the next whether you’ll be sitting by the gallery windows overlooking the fountain in the atrium or squeezed into 18in of sugar-scattered formica next to the sink in the staff kitchen.

I would just love it if the clear-desk policy could be revived for the digital age.

This could involve teams of IT Support Customer Facilitation Provisioncy trawling through user email accounts every night to ensure that employees’ inboxes are nice and tidy. If nothing else, it would hopefully ensure that colleagues actually got around to reading the fucking emails I send them rather than leaving them unopened indefinitely, bright red and unread.

For the moment, however, things have calmed down at my client’s office and the tear gas has dissipated. Glum employees return to work and begin phoning up for their daily replacement passwords, only to be informed that these will not be emailed to them. Instead, the new passwords will be read out to the users over the phone, followed by a stern verbal reminder that writing down this password during or after the call is also a sackable offence.

By the afternoon, people are trudging around the open plan office like zombies, repeatedly muttering their new passwords over and over again as they try to memorise them. It’s a bit like that scene at the end of Fahrenheit 451 when the hippy dropouts walk up and down reciting great works of literature from memory, except instead of saying things like “Oh for a muse of fire that would ascend the brightest heaven of invention…”, my colleagues are murmuring “knobblyknees”, “cockwomble” and “correcthorsebatterystaple”.

Better still, all their other passwords remain crumpled in their bins. These will later be collected and dumped into the skip out the back.

I’m glad that security risk has been cleared up at last.

Alistair DabbsAlistair Dabbs is a freelance technology tart, juggling IT journalism, editorial training and digital publishing. He leaves every desk at every client’s office perfectly spotless when finishing work, and he even carries a can of pledge and a duster in his backpack for the purpose. His desk at home is an absolute tip.

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