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This Is Your Life*

Before trying to tap that account, you might want to bone up on obscure family history the security-screening process might want you to provide.
Before trying to tap that account, you might want to bone up on obscure family history the security-screening process might want you to provide. (By Chip East -- Bloomberg News)

Katie Flahive was born in a town called Chillicothe, pronounced "Chill-uh-coth-ee." Her family moved when Flahive was small; she never bothered to nail down the spelling. "My father always said I'd have to use that information later in life. I couldn't imagine when." When arrived with the security question, "What city were you born in?" Now Flahive wonders: Did she spell it correctly when she created the account? Which wrong version did she use? Chillucothy? Chillicotheeeee? It's almost existential. Where is she from, anyway?

What makes a piece of trivia memory-worthy? In the limited brain space allotted for memory, how do we decide what to shelve and what to pitch? And are those decisions made through thoughtful reflecting on what is meaningful to us? Or are they made when a financial institution commands us with a security question?

* * *

Through an online demo, Verid is telling me who I am. Verid is the division of security firm RSA that specializes in knowledge-based authentication, and this is the latest technique to stay a step ahead of clever identity snatchers. Verid is good at what it does; its clients include JPMorgan Chase and E*Trade Financial. Verid knows my cellphone number. It knows that I grew up on McClun Street. It knows that my mother got remarried, to a man named Don Carlson.

Verid, whose tech offices are located in Herndon, is making sure that I know this information, too, by presenting it to me in the form of multiple-choice questions:

What month was Augusta Hesse born in?

A) May B) August C) October D) I do not know this person.

I don't know her. For sure. Unless, hold on -- is that my great-grandma? Didn't she have a name that started with an A? But would they expect me to know my great-grandmother's birthday? She died when I was 8!

I am sorry, Verid, sorry that I am the weakest twig in my family tree.

I didn't choose the question. Unlike traditional shared knowledge authentications, in which the user picks the test and the answer and regurgitates it with each sign-on, Verid vacuums public records for factoids, then tosses them at the user at random.

Other samples from the demo:

Which of the following cities does [Person X] live in?


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