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Online security questions are not very effective. I still love them. – News


The airline website wanted to know what instrument I played. I used to play the piano badly, but none of them. I also wanted to know my favorite ice cream flavor, cookie dough, which is like a tie with a peanut butter cup. Finally, the website asked, “Who is your favorite artist?” A drop-down menu with different comically options was offered, including Banksy, Norman Rockwell, Gustav Klimt, Richard Serra, and Shepard Fairey.

For the purpose of “security”, various questions have been asked from the interface of major companies. Some security questions are simple and look almost cliché. “What is your mother’s maiden name?” (Mother kept her and divorced.) “What color was your childhood home?” (Yellow, first blue, then blue Painted on and then sold.) “Who was your best friend when you were a kid?” (Annika — easy.) Others are dependent on their tastes and need to be fixed. there is. Favorite movies, favorite songs, favorite colors, and even favorite activities. Sometimes they cut straight into their hearts, like when I was given the option to select the security question “What is the love of your life?” (There was a strange poem here. “What”, not “who”.) I was trying to open a bank account when I was wondering. Above all, what do I really like?

Online security questions feel like an icebreaker you might have played in junior high school. They must be self-defining using any marker. They are like secret passwords for the treehouses of the games you play yourself. I have come to love them for many years. These sudden and strange personal inquiries guard the entrance to the most non-personal zones of the Internet.

Your mother’s maiden name had disappeared in the past, so no one else would have known it.

Security questions were devised to solve existential and practical problems at once. How can I prove that I am myself? A security question arose around 1850, according to a study conducted by Professor Bonnie Ruberg of the University of California, Irvine. Immigration Savings Banks were established for Irish immigrants in New York, many of whom were discriminated against by other banks. In the mid-19th century, banks often used signatures to authenticate people’s identities, but many of the customers of the Immigration Savings Bank were illiterate. Therefore, we created a “test book” that contains a wealth of personal information. When clients came in, the clerk asked them about their personal history and relationships to confirm their identities. From time to time they asked a typical question, “What is your mother’s maiden name?” (Assuming your mother’s maiden name had disappeared in the past, so little one else knew it. This practice has permeated and expanded into other banks over the next 50 years. Called “Challenge Question”, “Question and Answer Password”, or my favorite “Shared Secret”.

Unfortunately, the security question is Not very effective for security in the Internet age. In many cases, it’s easy to guess (the mother’s maiden name may still be her name, but it’s widely accessible information). A 2009 survey found that users’ acquaintances had a 17% chance of predicting a security response. Digital security experts recommend that you prioritize two-factor authentication and better protection methods and discontinue them. Still, the combination of cost savings, technical challenges, and inertia remains a security question that is surprisingly difficult to remove from the Internet architecture. We are in a strange moment in the middle of the tech, the imminent and necessary twilight of a security question.

I love shared secrets — even the secrets between me and my online banking system — and have already begun to mourn the loss of security questions. They feel like an antidote to the identity of the modern Internet. Unlike homogenized corporate sites that allow entry, the inherent randomness of security questions feels like a trace of the Internet in the past. They urge me to think of something that is personally and suddenly addressed to me and makes me unique. They are artifacts of an era when society thought differently about what constitutes identity and how to prove it, when we were not rooted in the idea of ​​objective documents such as passports and driver’s licenses. Sharing, which may be personal, often genetic knowledge.

This alternative articulation of self is beautiful. Instead of presenting yourself as a sum of objective facts such as eye color, height, and place of birth, you will be asked to choose your favorite song instead. It’s essentially like a child. When I was young, I had my own taste like a talisman. Because I put myself in the world and tried to tell others who I was. I chose my favorite baseball player and repeated it over and over: Derek Jeter, Derek Jeter, Derek Jeter. (In a diary I kept when I was nine, I compared two friends and wrote that they were both “big fans of the Yankees,” so one of them was perfect for me.) It fluctuates. They are inaccurate. But I think the changing landscape of my tastes, affinities, and random personal trivia is more important to who I am than my birthday. I’m still surprised and delighted to meet the spirit of another person, a relative, who shares my favorite song.


Sophie Haigney is a critic and journalist who writes about visual arts, books and technology.

Online security questions are not very effective. I still love them.

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