A website for an airline, I wanted to know what musical instruments I played: nothing, although at one point I was playing the piano badly. He also wanted to know my favorite taste of ice cream: cookie dough, maybe, it’s a tie with a cup of peanut butter. Finally, the website asked, “Who is your favorite artist?” It offers me a drop-down menu with somewhat ambiguous options – Banksy, Norman Rockwell, Gustav Clemt, Richard Serra and Shepard Farrell.

I have been asked all sorts of questions through the interface of large corporations for the purpose of “safety”. Some security questions seem simple, almost wondering: “What’s your mother’s first name?” (My mother kept it, and then divorced.) “What color was your childhood home?” (Yellow, although first it was blue and then it was painted and then sold.) “Who was your childhood best friend?” (Annica – easy.) More difficult to rely on other choices, which they determine: favorite movie, favorite song, favorite color, even favorite activity. Sometimes they cut straight to the heart, when I was given the option to choose the security question “What is the love of your life?” (Here were some weird poems – “Who doesn’t,” but “What.”) I was trying to open a bank account when I found myself looking at myself in a surprising, inconsistent way: more than anything else, what do I really love?

Security Online safety questions have the realization of icebreakers that we may have played in middle school, or perhaps second-stage questions; They need to self-define us using arbitrary markers. It’s like a treehouse secret passwords, in a game played with yourself. I’ve been loving them for years, this sudden, bizarre, personal inquiry that guards our entry into some of the most personal spheres of the Internet.

The assumption was that your mother’s first name would have faded into the past so that almost no one would know it.

Security questions were once invented to solve the problem in an existing and practical way: how can you prove that you are? According to research by Professor Bonnie Rubberg of the University of California, Irvine, security questions arose around 1850. The Immigrant Industrial Industrial Savings Bank was established in New York for Irish immigrants, many of whom faced discrimination at other banks. In the mid-19th century, banks often used signatures to authenticate people’s identities, but many customers of the Immigrant Industrial Industrial Savings Bank could not read. So he created a “test book” that contained a wealth of personal information. When customers arrived, the clerks asked about their personal history and relationships to verify their identities. Sometimes they even asked the provocative question, “What is your mother’s first name?” (The assumption was that your mother’s first name would have disappeared in the past that almost no one would have known.) The practice spread to other banks over the next 50 years – they came up with “challenge questions,” or “question-and-answer passwords.” Or, my dear, called “shared secrets.”

Unfortunately, security questions are not very effective for security in the age of the Internet. They are always easy to guess (your mother’s first name, which may still be her last name, is widely accessible information). A 2009 study found that users’ acquaintances can predict their security responses 17 percent of the time. Digital-security experts advise that we work with them in favor of better methods of dual-factor identification and protection. And yet security questions are lengthening, with some combination of cost-cutting techniques, technical challenges and inertia, surprisingly difficult to break out of the architecture of the Internet. We are in that strange moment between technology, the impending security question and the necessary twilight.

I like a shared secret – one between myself and my banking online banking system – and begin to mourn the loss of security questions. They seem like the antidote to the similarities of the contemporary internet. Uniformity Unlike corporate sites, where they give you access, the essential clutter of security questions seems like the culmination of the Internet of the past. They address me personally, out of the blue, and they encourage me to consider what makes me unique. They are the artifacts of an era when society had different ideas about what identity to create and how to prove it, when we were not thinking of objective documents like passports and driver’s licenses, but personal, often inherited knowledge can be shared. .

There is something beautiful about this alternate pronunciation of the self. Instead of presenting yourself as the sum of objective facts – eye color, height, place of birth – you will be asked to choose your favorite song. Something about this is essentially child-like; When I was younger, I kept my choices like amulets, as I tried to both establish myself in the world and tell others who I was. I have chosen a favorite baseball player, and repeat it over and over again: Derek Jeter, Derek Jeter, Derek Jeter. (In the diary I kept when I was 9 years old, I compared two friends and wrote that one of them was a better match for me because we were both “huge Yankee fans.”) These things fluctuate; They are intact. But the landscape of my interests, connections, and random personal trivialities, I think, is more essential to who I am than my date of birth. I am still amazed and delighted that someone else, a kind of spirit, shares my favorite song.


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