Saturday, June 15, 2013

You're My Security

If there is a single word which crosses every aspect of our lives today it is "security." Doesn't matter the venue – economic, physical, virtual – surveys show that people place feeling safe at the top of their list of concerns. To insure it we buy guns, put locks on our doors and ask our husbands to watch, watch, watch our pocketbooks when we go to the rest room (I know the last from years of experience). And more and more, we rely on passwords.

The last used to be simple. Before there was anything really anything important online (because there was no online), the purpose of the password was less about real security and protection, and more about denying casual access. But three decades later, and that same password could just as easily protect your bank account, your Ebay store or your Twitter feed; you decide which is the most important.

Like most things, the state of the art has advanced a bit as well. In addition to a password, you are often asked to put in a "CAPTCHA," an artistic rendition of a letter-number combination designed to thwart a text reading programs. (Yes, it is correctly spelled with all capitals, as it's an acronym for "Completely Automated Public Turing Test To Tell Computers and Humans Apart.") You might also have been asked to set up one or a series of security questions. Your elementary school. The street where you grew up. Your first pet. Forget the keys to your car or house; remembering the answer to these questions are the real keys to your kingdom.

But with all that is available online, the answer to those and questions like them isn't really that elusive. A few clicks and I can find out you went to Millard Fillmore Elementary (and were awarded Most Improved Speller in second grade), that you lived on Apple Lane, even that you and your dog Speckles were inseparable. So what next? How can any web site prove you are you when you tap in, and not some meanie looking to rip you off?

I hit this next frontier when I got a new phone. In the course of getting it set up, I had to reinstall all the apps I used and reregister them, proving in each case that I was me. Each app or site presented me with some combination of the aforementioned methods; password, CAPTCHA, security questions. And then I came to Facebook. It offered me a choice: security questions or pictures? I decided to try pictures, assuming it would show me shots I had posted and ask for details I had entered. But it took a different approach; it showed me you.

When I clicked go, it randomly pulled up a picture of someone with whom I was friends. And not their profile picture, either. Rather, it was one they had posted on their own page, while a multiple choice list of who it might be was posted below.  So I got a picture of Maryann, not alone but with her niece at the little girl's five year old birthday party. Next was a softball team gathered around a bar; I think I saw my friend John in the background. Then a grainy out of focus shot of what looked to be Paris, with Emily off to the side. A counter below kept score; I was being given five chances. Get three right and I was in. Blow it and I was locked out and would have to get my account reset.

That means that "friend me" takes on a whole new meaning. That's because going forward you could well be the key to my security. So now I have to care enough about you to learn what you looked like when you had hair back in 1986. I have to be able to pick you out of a shot from your college sorority rush class. I have to know what your nieces and nephews look like, what countries you've visited, and what your wore for Halloween in 2004.

Still, I feel safer. Knowing that you are standing guard for me makes me feel much more secure. Now, if I could only remember half of things about myself, I'd be fine.


Marc Wollin of Bedford has never posted a picture on Facebook. His column appears regularly in The Record-Review, The Scarsdale Inquirer and online at, as well as via Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter 

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