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Last reviewed: June 30 2008

What's the difference between usernames and passwords?

Any computer professional will tell you that good passwords are critical to protecting your data (e-mail, bank account, etc), but new computer users are often confused about the purpose of a username and how it differs from a password.

A username is pretty much what it sounds like it would be when you break apart the word into its two parts—the name of the computer user. Unless you tell a computer (website, program, or other device) who you are, it has no way of knowing. The username identifies who you are and the password provides proof that you really are that person. One example that everyone will be familiar with is an Automated Teller Machine (ATM). I've never seen an ATM that requires you to enter a username, but it does require a special card which has your account information encoded on it. So, in this case, the card takes the place of a username and your Personal Identification Number (PIN) is your password.

Now, having a card for each computer or website you use is not feasible. Instead, computers and websites use a username to distinguish between different people. That means each person on a computer or website must choose a unique name.

Why not just use your name?

While using your real name as your username sounds like a good idea at first, the reality is, there are many people with the same name. For example, if your name is John Smith, it is very likely that two people with that name will use the same service. If two people have the same username, the computer system has no way of knowing which one is you and which is that other John Smith.

Many services now use your e-mail address as your username. This provides several benefits:

But, using an e-mail address as a username can expose private information to other people using the same service. That's why many websites that allow you to post public messages will also have you choose a screen name (handle, pseudonym) so your e-mail address isn't shown.

Allowing people to choose any username or screen name they want helps provide a sense of anonymity which allows people to discuss problems and issues which may make them uncomfortable if their real identity was known.

Summary

Usernames are very much like your name, they identify who you are to computers and websites. Passwords are a secret code which prove that you are who your username identifies. Both pieces of information will be needed to access a computer or website. If you would like more information on security training or have any questions about the information presented in this article, please, contact us.

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