Your Mother’s Maiden Name Is Not a Secret

Excerpt from this article:

Security questions are astonishingly insecure: The answers to many of them are easily researched or guessed, yet they can be the sole barrier to someone gaining access to your account. The cryptology and security expert Bruce Schneier once described them as an “easier-to-guess low-security backup password that sites want you to have in case you forget your harder-to-remember higher-security password.”

There has been no shortage of incidents demonstrating these questions’ vulnerabilities. In 2005, Paris Hilton’s T-Mobile account was hacked by a teenager who, like anyone who searched “Paris Hilton Chihuahua” on the internet, knew the answer to “What’s your favorite pet’s name?” In 2008, Sarah Palin’s Yahoo account was hacked by a college student who reset her password using her birth date, ZIP code and the place where she met her spouse.

How many of us can answer the premillennial “What city were you in to celebrate the year 2000?” or “What year did you take out your first mortgage?” And how many Indian- or Brazilian-born users went to a high school without a mascot, or grew up on a street with no name? How many of our mothers never changed their names?

The other main type of security question asks for a subjective answer. Such questions imagine lives punctuated by distinct firsts and bests and filled with enduring favorites, but favorites and bests and even firsts can change when people maintain accounts for decades. At some point, both factual and subjective security questions become archaeological. “In what month did you meet your significant other?” requires a framing question: Whom were you with when you set up this account?

A 2015 study by Google engineers found that only 47 percent of people could remember what they put down as their favorite food a year earlier — and that hackers were able to guess the food nearly 20 percent of the time, with Americans’ most common answer being pizza.

 

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