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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)

Which of the following age ranges most closely matches the age range of [Person Y]?

What color is your [Car Z]?

What height is on your driver's license?

It's the newest wave of authentication. If someone attempts a "high-risk" transaction with one of Verid's clients -- like accessing an account from a public computer at 2 p.m. rather than their typical 7 p.m. laptop log-in -- they might be hit with one of Verid's tests. RSA also has a division that develops traditional shared-knowledge questions.

With the exception of that last question (which, if your wallet's not handy, requires racking your brain to remember how baldfaced your last height lie was), most of the tests work exactly as they're supposed to: minimal brain energy for the authentic user, confusion for the fraudster.

Creating each question is a blend of art and science called Human Computer Interaction, a field of computer science dedicated to making computers more attuned to a person's needs.

"Computers are like very dumb people, but they're very fast at being dumb," says Jason Hong, a professor at Carnegie Mellon's Human-Computer Interaction Institute (HCII). "They can immediately perform any task we tell them how to do. But they're not robust" -- meaning they're easily susceptible to crippling errors. Humans are very robust. We learn. We have clarifying conversations to help us out: When you ask what city Person X lives in, do you mean his summer home or his winter home?

Humans are equipped with both intuition and life experience, which allow them to know, for example, that Don, Donny and Donald Carlson are all the same person, as are Kim, Kimmy and Kimberly Smith. At the same time, we would realize that Kim Min-ho was not short for Kimberly. Kim in that context is a Korean surname.

Hong and his colleagues work to improve this quality in computers. (For the Kim problem, a massive database with thousands of names might be used to train the computer to recognize cultural distinctions.)

It's a mirror trick. Computer scientists use human experience to teach computers how we think. Then the computers use that information to test who we are.

Verid knows more than some people would feel comfortable with, which COO Chris Rickborn understands. "We don't want the consumer to feel like they're divulging information," he says. "They're just verifying information the company already has."

The evaluation process is entirely automated and done on a curve. Verid would expect you to know what city your brother lives in. It will cut you some slack if you can't remember the name of his ex-wife's niece's husband, or the address you lived in for three months 10 years ago.

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