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While trying to answer a question I tried to find some information on how passwords are distributed around Hogwarts. From what I remember, Harry and co always seem to learn the Gryffindor Common Room password from a prefect, but how did the prefects learn the password in the first place?

As explained in this question, each password protected area appears to have the password set by its somewhat sentient guardian (such as the Fat Lady). How does this guardian then spread the word to only the people who should be in the know (in the Fat Lady's case, only the Gryffindors)?

My educated guess would be that their level of sentience means they recognise at least the headmaster/mistress and their head of house as a reliable authority to initially give the password to, who then tell their respective prefects the password who in turn tell the students of their house, although I'm stumped to find a quote to back this up/refute it.

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    I've a suspicion there's no canon information on this (unless it's a JKR afterthought), which I'd be happy to accept as an answer should it be from one of the site's Harry Potter buffs, although I'm hoping there's something about it out there. – Ongo Apr 1 at 22:17
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    I was going to VTC:Move but couldn't decide if this belongs on Security.SE or Crypto.SE... key management could go either way... – gowenfawr Apr 2 at 12:04
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It's fairly well established that students get the initial password from prefects. For example, when Harry and Ron arrive at the entrance for the first time in Chamber of Secrets, having not been to the Great Hall, we are told the following:

They didn't know the new year's password, not having met a Gryffindor prefect yet,

As to how the prefects are informed, we don't have much information. However, we can assume that they are not told directly by the Fat Lady, because they already know the password before they ever go up to her portrait. Presumably, then, the prefects are told the password by a member of the staff, likely the head of house Professor McGonagall. Assuming as you do that the Fat Lady sets the password, we would have to assume that she gives it to McGonagall in advance.

The above is all in reference to the initial password for the year. That is where we find a bunch of examples throughout the books of prefects knowing the passwords. However, the passwords also routinely change throughout the year, and in those cases we don't see prefects giving the passwords to the other students. In fact, we don't see anything about how new passwords are spread around. We do see an instance of a password having been changed in Chapter Seventeen of Half-Blood Prince:

"Baubles," said Ron confidently, when they reached the Fat Lady, who was looking rather paler than usual and winced at his loud voice.

"No," she said.

"What d'you mean, 'no' ?

"There is a new password," she said. "And please don't shout."

"But we've been away, how're we supposed to — ?"

But this just tells us that the Fat Lady won't give the new password to students trying too get into the common room. It doesn't tell us how the new password would actually be spread around.

Later in Chapter Twenty-Three there is another instance that may shed a little bit of light on the system:

By the time he got up to the portrait of the Fat Lady and pulled off his Invisibility Cloak, he was not surprised to find her in a most unhelpful mood.

"What sort of time do you call this?"

"I'm really sorry — I had to go out for something important —"

"Well, the password changed at midnight, so you'll just have to sleep in the corridor, won't you?"

"You're joking!" said Harry. "Why did it have to change at midnight?"

"That's the way it is," said the Fat Lady. "If you're angry, go and take it up with the headmaster, he's the one who's tightened security."

Here we see another example of a password being changed and a student not knowing the new password. Again the Fat Lady does not tell him the new password. Now if we consider the claim that the password changed at midnight, we have to wonder how anyone would know the new password. As soon as they exit the common room the next morning they would be unable to get back in. Even if they could find out the password in the Great Hall during breakfast (as in the beginning of the year) that wouldn't help for anyone who needed to get back in before going down to breakfast. It would seem reasonable, then, that password changes are displayed in the common room itself. So when the Fat Lady chooses a new password there might be some magical sign inside the room that automatically updates with the new password. Thus, any student already inside would be able to learn the new password before leaving the room.

Now it turns out that in the above case the Fat Lady was lying, and the password actually hadn't been changed:

He wheeled about and sprinted off again, ignoring the Fat Lady who was calling after him.

"Come back! All right, I lied! I was annoyed you woke me up! The password's still 'tapeworm'!"

However, from what Harry responded (and didn't respond) we can perhaps infer that nothing that the Fat Lady was claiming was fundamentally against how the system worked.

However, there is a slight issue with assuming that the new password is displayed inside the common room. As part of his punishment for enabling Sirius Black to gain access to the common room, Neville was not told the new passwords:

Neville was in total disgrace. Professor McGonagall was so furious with him she had banned him from all future Hogsmeade visits, given him a detention, and forbidden anyone to give him the password into the tower.

If the passwords were displayed in the common room, this would be a meaningless punishment since he could easily find it out even if no one would tell it to him. So we would now either have to assume that McGonagall gave him a meaningless punishment, or accept that the password is not displayed in the common room. If it is not displayed, then we are stuck with saying that students could not find out the new password until the next time they saw a prefect. Depending on what time of day the password is changed, this could cause some logistical issues. It is theoretically possible that passwords would only change overnight and the prefects would somehow get notified right away so that they could tell the other students before they leave the common room, but there doesn't seem to be any specific evidence for this.

Perhaps relevant to this is Percy's reaction in Prisoner of Azkaban when he finds everyone waiting outside after the Fat Lady was attacked:

"Let me through, please," came Percy's voice, and he came bustling importantly through the crowd. "What's the holdup here? You can't all have forgotten the password – excuse me, I'm Head Boy –"

Here Percy does not even entertain the idea that the password might have been changed. Perhaps we can infer from this that either the password would never change at that time of day, or that the password would never change without Percy (as a prefect/head boy) being immediately notified.

In short, I would say that aside for the first password of the year, we don't really know how the students are informed.

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    I don't think there's a logistical problem. The prefects are given the new password, probably a little in advance most of the time, and it is then passed by word-of-mouth. Even if each student tells only two other students, it wouldn't take long to reach everybody. And if you can't find anyone who knows it, you go looking for a prefect. – Harry Johnston Apr 2 at 0:01
  • ... note that Harry's reaction to being told that the password changed at midnight strongly implies that this is not normal procedure. – Harry Johnston Apr 2 at 0:02
  • @HarryJohnston Well it's not a huge problem, but if you leave the common room and immediately realize that you forgot something inside you would have to go all the way down to the Great Hall to get the password and then come all the way back up. That's a bit of an annoyance. – Alex Apr 2 at 0:02
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    Sure, but I think that would only happen under unusual circumstances. (Might have been rather more common while Sir Cadogan was on duty, though.) – Harry Johnston Apr 2 at 0:36
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    Regarding that first quote from Half-Blood Prince: at this point, Ron is a prefect, and he'd just seen Professor McGonagall - Harry and Ron returned to Hogwarts by Floo, and used her fireplace. So that kills my theory that the Fat Lady tells the prefects, as well as your suggestion that perhaps McGonagall tells the prefects. – Harry Johnston Apr 5 at 7:58

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