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Originally published Friday, June 20, 2014 at 12:00 PM

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Passwords on thumb drives; unraveling a code mystery

Passwords stored on a secure thumb drive sounds good, but thumb drives can be lost, writes Patrick Marshall. He also has advice on dealing with coding issues with WordPress and browsers.

Special to The Seattle Times


Q: I read your recent column discussing passwords and didn’t see any reference to the method I use to store my passwords, which I think is totally secure. So now I’m wondering if I’ve overlooked something.

What I do is store them in a file on a SanDisk thumb drive that is locked with a password I memorize. If I lose it and anyone tries to access it, the person gets only five tries to get the correct password into it.

The next attempt after that locks it permanently, and it must be totally erased in order to reuse it. Do you know of any way this security could be defeated?

Second question: I have an 8 GB SanDisk Cruzer thumb drive that somehow has been programmed to be “locked” so that nothing on it can be erased. I can store new stuff on it, and that cannot be erased either. Nor can it be reformatted.

I may have at some point in the past locked it like this, but don’t recall doing that, nor any way to unlock it. Can it be unlocked?

Otherwise, I have occasionally had the experience of attempting to erase a file or folder on my computers and found it to be “locked” so as not to be deleted. In general, is this a setting that can be disabled so such things can be deleted off my hard drive?

— Gerry Maki

A: Well, the security on your thumb drive sounds pretty good. My concern would be, though, how I would access my own passwords if I lost the thumb drive. And I’ve lost a lot of thumb drives.

And, no, I don’t know of any way to beat that five-attempts-and-it-locks-down system. But I wouldn’t be at all surprised if the National Security Agency has a way around it ...

Yes, you can check the setting in Windows for any storage device to see if write permissions have been switched off. If they have, you can turn them on by right-clicking on the drive in Windows Explorer, then clicking on Properties. Next click on the Security tab in the dialogue box that appears. You’ll then see a display of the permission settings.

If the permissions look right on the Cruzer, I’d try the drive in another machine and see if you have the same problem. My guess is that the Cruzer might have gone bad.

Q: I have a custom-made desktop PC with Windows 7 and Internet Explorer 10. I have Malwarebytes and Avast on my machines. I use both Firefox and Internet Explorer.

About a year ago, I noticed that my blog on WordPress (which I use on Firefox) stopped showing actual icons for word processing (for instance, a capital B for Bold) and replaced them with small rectangular boxes. Inside the box is a code F105, with the F1 atop the 05. Each box has a slightly different code, F11 02, F2 24, F8 00, etc.)

At first the boxes showed up only in one or two spots; now the entire page has them.

I’ve emailed Firefox support, and got no answer. I emailed WordPress support and no one can figure out what is going on.

Today I accessed Science News Daily, and the infernal little boxes are now showing up there. Instead of a carat appearing at the left of a topic, I get the dreaded placeholder box.

Please, what is going on here? If I access the websites with Internet Explorer, everything comes out properly.

— Michelle

A: It’s the folks at WordPress who are going to have to address this issue. It doesn’t matter what Web authoring tool you’re using; the same code can have different results on different browsers.

That’s why authoring programs like Dreamweaver make it easy to preview pages in every browser you want to test against. When you see problems, you can generally locate where in the code the problem is occurring.

WordPress is also an authoring tool, though it exposes less of the underlying code and you can’t test pages in browsers and then scroll through the underlying code. As a result, you’re going to have to count on the folks at to do the troubleshooting.

Before going back to them, however, you might want to eliminate the possibility that something in your installation of Firefox is corrupt. Try to access the same pages from another computer with Firefox and see if you still have the problem. If not, something may be corrupt on your computer.

If that’s the case, first try reinstalling Firefox.

Questions for Patrick Marshall may be sent by email to or, or by mail at Q&A/Technology, The Seattle Times, P.O. Box 70, Seattle, WA 98111. More columns at


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