Warning: this article will melt your brain. Consume in small portions and rest frequently. Or skip to the end for the simple advice.
In the not so distant past of technology, the account name you used to access your service or software was usually a single word. Sometimes it was your name, or some variation of first initial and last name, or it was something you got to choose like “soccermom72” or “sunnysdad” or “bruins4ever” etc. As online services grew in popularity and the number of people needing accounts exploded, most service providers realized they no longer needed you to pick a name (and suffer through finding one that wasn’t already taken) as you were already providing them with a unique identifier, so they got rid of all the “catmom2013” ID’s in favor of using your email address. From a technical perspective, this makes perfect sense, but for many users, this can lead to confusion and frustration if you aren’t keeping careful track of your passwords, or worse, using the same password for everything.
When an email address is more than just an email address
Microsoft, Apple and Google are the primary causes of email-as-account-name confusion, especially if you’ve created an account with those services using an email address that has nothing to do with any of those providers. For example, when setting up a new Windows computer, one of the first things it does is ask if you have a Microsoft account, and if you don’t (or think you don’t) it asks you to put in your email address and it will create one for you. So you put in your email address that you’ve had for years (something-at-aol-dot-com?) and the set up process has you create a password for this new account. Many people misread this prompt as “enter your current email” password, and don’t realize Windows is actually asking you to create a new password for your new Microsoft account, but also, typing in your email password (Twice? Why is it asking me to enter it twice?) works, because as far as Microsoft is concerned, your current email password will also work as your new Microsoft password. Do you see where this is going?
So now you’ve got a new Microsoft account that uses your email address and password as the login. “Convenient,” you think. “One less password to remember.” Until you need to change your email password because maybe it got hacked, or your IT consultant warned you to stop using it. Whatever, you’ve changed your email password. Then you go to log into your Windows computer, which is using that same password, right? Wait. Why isn’t this new password working? I just changed it and I know I wrote it down correctly! OK, I’ll try the old one. Why is that working? But the old password doesn’t work for my email now? WHAT IS HAPPENING?!?!
For most folks that don’t daily marinate their brains in technology, it’s a common mistake to think that using your email address for an account name confers global login capabilities to your services with your email address and password. It does if you use the same password and never change it, but the moment any of the services insist on a password change, confusion is imminent. And here’s something that will really bake your noodle: if you set it up right, your email credentials can actually do this with a lot of services and keep in sync with password changes! But it has to be a certain type of email address (Microsoft, Google or Apple powered) and the services all have to have that capability (usually labeled as “login with your XXXX account”). This was a very popular authentication method in the early 20-teens, but once major password leaks started occurring, more services were shying away from “single sign-on” as folks were having their entire online lives stolen with a single password. In reality, most people will have a mixture of single sign-on services and regular logins, all using their email address as the login name. And if they don’t make a point of recording passwords used with particular services (especially if those services don’t ask for passwords often), human memory will just mash all of it together under “email address and this password.” Even writing it down is confusing sometimes, especially if you look back later at your notes and see the following, “Microsoft account uses Gmail address and this password,” or “Google account uses my AOL email address as login.” Wait, my email doesn’t come from Google, it comes from AOL, doesn’t it?!?
What’s the solution to this madness? Password trackers and unique passwords, and understanding that just because an account is using your email address as a login, it doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s using the same password. In fact, if you are “doing it right”, nothing should have the same password unless you are using a collection of services that are designed specifically to authenticate against email services that provide single sign-on capabilities. Still confused? You are in good company. Just take good notes, track your passwords, and make sure you have C2 on speed dial when things get weird.
Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay