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Three Simple Words Can Find Any Place on Earth

The “what3words system” of geolocation is easier to remember than many street addresses and may also work for passwords

What3words is an app and web-based service that can convert practically any location within 3 × 3 meters (or 10 × 10 feet) — the size of a typical small bedroom or den — to just three short English words if you can give it an address. Don’t believe that? Try it.

Library of Congress

The address of the Library of Congress is person.hotels.canny

The address of the Louvre Museum in France is started.pelting.pops

And … bluffs.alas.skater? That’s the address of a Canadian Tire store somewhere in Ottawa. Clicking Bing Maps at the What3Words site will give you that store’s street address, satellite image and tell you how to get there.

So why do this?

Math prof Mary Lynn Reed explains:

This new approach to geocoding is useful for several reasons. First, it’s more precise than regular street addresses. Also, three words are easier for humans to remember and communicate to one another than, say, detailed latitude and longitude measurements. This makes the system well suited for emergency services. Seeing these advantages, some car manufacturers are starting to integrate what3words into their navigation systems.

Mary Lynn Reed, “How math and language can combine to map the globe and create strong passwords, using the power of 3 random words” at The Conversation (June 16, 2022)

Well, Subaru has jumped in, along with Mercedes-Benz, Mitsubishi, Lamborghini, Lotus and Ford. Also, DK Guides, AirBnB, and Lonely Planet. What3words may be especially useful for finding the right entrance to a building, for example.

Mary Lynn Reed

Wait. Are there really enough words in English to code all this information so easily? Yes, if we apply math thinking to the question:

An ordered triple is just a list of three things in which the order matters. So “brilliance.bronze.inputs” would be considered a different ordered triple than “bronze.brilliance.inputs”. In fact, in the what3words system, bronze.brilliance.inputs is on a mountain in Alaska, not in the middle of the RIT Tigers Turf Field, like brilliance.bronze.inputs.

The next step is figuring out how many words there are in a language, and whether there are enough ordered triples to map the globe. Some scholars estimate there are more a million English words; however, many of them are very uncommon. But even using only common English words, there are still plenty to go around. You can find many word lists online.

Mary Lynn Reed, “How math and language can combine to map the globe and create strong passwords, using the power of 3 random words” at The Conversation (June 16, 2022)

The what3words team came up with 40,000 English words and — mixed and matched, with rude words omitted — that turns out to be enough:

If you allow repeats, as what3words does, there would be 40,000 possibilities for the first word, 40,000 possibilities for the second word, and 40,000 possibilities for the third word. The number of possible ordered triples would then be 40,000 times 40,000 times 40,000, which is 64 trillion. That provides plenty of “three random word” triples to cover the globe. The excess combinations also allow what3words to eliminate offensive words and words that would be easily confused for one another.

Mary Lynn Reed, “How math and language can combine to map the globe and create strong passwords, using the power of 3 random words” at The Conversation (June 16, 2022)

What about other languages? Mostly, it’s the same thing, just different words — for fifty different languages.

Currently, only English and Korean map the entire globe: “When you divide the world into 3 metre squares you end up with 57 trillion. For English and Korean we addressed the entire globe, which meant generating 57 trillion what3words addresses. The other 48 languages cover all land masses and some ocean, which is about 15.6 trillion squares each. That’s a grand total of 864 trillion unique what3words addresses!” – what3words

Care is taken with languages that share a lot of words: “Danish and Norwegian have a lot of vocabulary in common, but their what3words addresses don’t share any words so people never end up in the wrong place. 50 languages get us to 1.28 million unique words.” – what3words

What about using three random words as passwords?

Some computer security experts also advocate three random words as a way of creating passwords that are easy to remember but hard to just guess:

Longstanding advice around making your passwords very complex (which suggests we should create passwords full of random characters, symbols and numbers) is not helpful. This is because most of us have lots of passwords, and memorising lots of complex passwords is almost impossible.

Passwords generated from three random words is a good way to create unique passwords that are ‘long enough’ and ‘strong enough’ for most purposes, but which can also be remembered much more easily.

Top tips for staying secure online, “Three random words” at National Cyber Security Centre (December 21, 2021)

Here’s the logic behind the three-words approach to passwords, as seen by a technical expert.

Just think: In the end, the best tracking and security systems system turn out to be — not formidable advanced technology — but the simple words we use every day.


You may also wish to read: Forget your password? Apple wants to end them for good but… Do you want to give Apple your face- and fingerprints, maybe other “biometrics” down the road…? Schemes to end passwords vary in terms of privacy and security, as David Kruger notes. How much physical information/control do we want Big Tech to have on us?


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Three Simple Words Can Find Any Place on Earth