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How It Is

You Are The Weakest Link

Thoughts on the weakest link in security: You and me.

I sit by people who are on the phone with customers about their accounts all day. Each and every day I hear them talk to customers who are past due or need to activate a new credit card or had an account closed by not paying. In general, I marvel at how consistently nice these coworkers of mine are, considering the number of times I hear people screaming at them. But I also get to hear some fairly impressive conversations.

Locked safeMost of the time, the conversations are mild, a reminder that you actually have to pay, here’s how you pay, off you go. But once in a while you get to hear the tale of someone who wants to cancel an account. This is only interesting because we don’t cancel your account for you. You have to log in and cancel the charges and billing. About once a day, someone asks why we can’t just accept they are who they say they are and close the account, and I hear my coworker explain over and over that it’s not secure. We can’t verify you over the phone, we called you, and… well there’s a reason you have to call your bank and not the other way around.

Recently I had a credit card jacked, causing me to miss a payment I didn’t know I owed. I was called by a bill collector after 60 days and they asked for my account information. I balked and asked what card he was calling about, what was the amount, when was it charged, and so on. Then I hung up (I tried to tell him thank you, he kept talking) and called the card company directly. They confirmed the situation, I explained it wasn’t me, we got the bill reversed, everyone was happy… except me. I pointed out having some random number call me and claim to represent them was not safe or secure. They agreed, and also remarked that I shouldn’t have had a collection agency after me at only 60 days, so clearly they had a billing problem.

I’m a little thoughtful about my security, if you can’t tell. So when I read my friend Gary’s story about Paypal’s lack of security, it surprised me. There’s no true Two Factor authentication on something that has access to my bank account, just a dongle I’d have to pay for (and keep handy) or SMS. And when you read more into why Gary turned on SMS (see the story about how @N lost his user name and $50k), it gets more disturbing.

Social engineering to figure out passwords and pose as other people is easy. I do it all the time when I need to set up something for myself and my wife, and the company says she has to call too. I happen to have all of her information, down to access to her email (after all, I’m her sysadmin), and we actually made a specific joint email address for things like our bank account. If you have the information, it’s not hard to do.

Chains around a railingWe can blame GoDaddy and Paypal all we want for this. Should they accept the last four digits of my credit card as identification? Should they accept my social security number? What about my password (which means they can read it, by the way), or what about a special password used only for verification? Now I have to remember more, carry more, and know more all the time. It’s information overload. And because of that, because we’ve complained, they do less.

People see our credit cards all the time. You handed your debit card to someone to pay your eye-doctor’s co-pay, or for that latte. We tweet about our first pets and mother’s maiden names, and we Facebook everything. It’s pretty obvious that the weakest link in security, and the reason social engineering can easily exploit them with companies, is us.

There isn’t a perfect way to protect ourselves, though. Last year my phone got wiped and I lost my Google Authenicator settings. I had secondary login codes for Google itself, but not WordPress.com (I’d never set them up) so I was unable to log in. After skyping and emailing two of my good friends who work there, I was able to get back in, but had they not been able to know it was me, what could have happened?

Every time someone asks me what I do to be safer online, I tell them this “I am working to eradicate my ability to be stupid.”