Why a Former Olympic Athlete Wants to Kill Your Password
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because this is how you stay afloat on a sinking ship.
By Sean Culligan and Leslie Nguyen-Okwu
Inside Yahoo’s mission control, Dylan Casey is waging a battle. His conference rooms are “war rooms” and his standing desk is the “command center” from which he barks orders. He’s tasked with an unenviable Hail Mary — making Yahoo technologically relevant and competitive again.
His method: killing your password. The hawkish vice president of product management, 45–year-old Casey, launched Yahoo’s Account Key last year, which he now lauds as an easy way to log in to your account without creating a string of letters and numbers you’ll forget in 30 seconds. No need to rack your brain later on. Instead, it’s the company’s responsibility. Here’s how it works: When Yahoo users who’ve enabled Account Key arrive at a login screen for Yahoo email on a phone or desktop, they’re asked via a phone notification, simply, intimately — Is that you? Are you really trying to log in? The user must select “Yes,” which authenticates the user’s identity.
The experts say Casey’s work is technologically solid: “Yahoo has done a great job. The key to your kingdom must be a good key, right?” says Kevin Shahbazi, a cybersecurity expert with more than 25 years in the field. Shahbazi says forcing companies and devices to recognize login information, rather than users, is powerful. Already, company data shows, some eight million more users per month are able to get into their accounts, compared to the 15 million per month who had problems getting into their accounts in the past. For a company that’s trying to woo users away from user-friendly, ubiquitous Gmail, anything that eases entry can help.
Casey’s certainly on what he calls the “bleeding edge” of this technology as part of a new wave of password assassins swarming the tech scene these days. Sophisticated alternatives like palm vein readers, iris recognition and keystroke dynamics have emerged from major companies and upstarts alike, as stopgaps to the growing flow of leaked data and crude passwords. Many companies are moving toward biometric identification — HSBC opted for fingerprint and voice recognition in February; Apple launched thumbprint recognition on its iPhones in 2013. There are still other options: password manager LogMeOnce lets you through with a quick photo as of June and Google and Microsoft are both testing voice, Bluetooth and body-movement initiatives. Indeed, Casey was months ahead of the game when he launched Account Key last October. Asked about how his technology competes, Casey says, “All boats rise with the tide.” (Yahoo is not releasing this technology open-source.)
But beyond the sprint that awaits Yahoo as it makes its last attempts at relevancy, Shahbazi warns that this kind of technology isn’t enough to tide the company over a stormy bidding war. Regardless of who buys Yahoo, Martin says the internet giant will only serve as a “shell” of its former self: Some of its core assets will be repurposed to benefit the buying company, while other technologies might be dismantled, Account Key included. Yahoo was once the popular kid in the Silicon Valley schoolyard, but its revenue is expected to decline by some 17 percent this year, from $4.1 billion to somewhere between $3.4 billion and $3.6 billion, according to its own estimates.
Casey knew the challenges when he followed Yahoo’s Mayer out of his lead position at social app Path into Yahoo’s dimming spotlight. He likes pressure, and he has built a reputation for handling it as he’s moved through the various rungs of the Valley for the past 13 years. He recalls his time at Google as a product manager as his “undergrad,” his time at Path as his “master’s” and, finally, his work at Yahoo as a “Ph.D.” “Dylan is a ruthless executor,” says Jonathan Rosenberg, the senior vice president of products at Google, who also used to work with Casey. He refers to Casey’s “pliancy coupled with an adamant resolve to get to the finish line.”
Before turning to tech, Casey was a world-class athlete, racing for the U.S. Postal Service Pro Cycling Team alongside fellow cyclist Lance Armstrong. After winning gold at the Pan American Games and competing in the Sydney Olympics, Casey learned from punishing practices and cutthroat competitions that “brutal is beautiful.” “He’s been able to translate what he learned on the road to his tech life: team morale and incentivizing people for success,” Armstrong says over the phone. “But I’m no tech guru or anything.”
All the while, office life has not made Casey soft with age: He still cycles religiously every week for two-hour stretches around Bay Area trails. He still thinks like an athlete too, often reminding himself to “stop operating from a center of fear and start operating from a center of confidence,” he says. “We can’t manage all the noise and drama and naysayers” who question Yahoo’s falling fortunes.
And clearly, he’s operating with a jock’s level of self-assurance: Behind his standing desk lies a table littered with beer bottles, scotch and whiskey; his crew of coders wears cotton T-shirts triumphantly proclaiming “I Killed the Password.” Premature, perhaps, but the attitude might be just what’s needed here in Yahoo’s final innings.