Delta and the Security Question Anti-Pattern

High on my list of most aggravating anti-patterns is that of setting up (in)security questions. You know, where you have to choose three questions along the lines of:

  • What is your father’s middle name?
  • What is the name of your first pet?

Questions which, if answered truthfully, are incredibly easy to guess with just a modicum of research. But if you make something up, then you’re likely to forget what answer you gave. It is widely agreed that these kinds of questions do not provide any real security, and there are a number of tricks people recommend for creating more secure answers. I have my own solution, so that’s not really the point of this post. This post is about what happened when I logged onto the Delta website today.

Screenshot of Delta Airlines website prompting to setup security

After logging in with my four digit PIN (no, I’m not kidding… their website only supports four digit passwords), I was prompted to setup security questions for my account. My account which I’ve had since 2001, where I’ve deliberately chosen not to setup the optional security questions. However this time, I was notified that if I don’t setup security questions by September 17th, then I will lose access to my account. Delta has decided to make security questions mandatory now for all of their SkyMiles customers. That wouldn’t be so bad if it weren’t for what happens when you forget your security questions:

What happens if I can’t remember my security questions or answers?

If you forget the answers to the security questions, and you exceed the maximum allowable attempts to answer your security questions, your PIN will be emailed to the address stored in your SkyMiles profile. If you don’t have an email address on file then you can reset your PIN online provided you remember your personal information.

They simply email the PIN to you (in plain text) anyway! I’m not sure what kind of “personal information” you would have to provide if you don’t have an email address on your account, but it can’t be much more than address and phone number.

So I’m left wondering why on earth they are now forcing security questions down their customers’ throats. It would be one thing if they didn’t already have an automated password retrieval process, and this was an effort to cut support costs associated with forgotten passwords, but that’s not the case. It might also be acceptable if they recognized the danger of simply emailing passwords around in plain text, and so enforced this based on the incorrect belief that it’s more secure. But again, that is also not the case. All they’ve managed to do is to provide someone with yet another way to potentially gain unauthorized access to my account. If they really wanted to beef up security, how about allowing for more than a four digit PIN. If you really want to make things more secure, allow me to sign in using my OpenID which supports multi-factor authentication.

Of course I know this is not a unique problem by any means. Delta is not the only, nor the worst, offender. And I’m not really sure why someone would want to break into my Delta account anyway… there’s really nothing in there of any value. I know it was probably some schmuck at Delta with a three letter title and no clue about online security who forced the team to implement this. I know all this… it’s just really aggravating.

Comments and responses

Have you written a response to this? Let me know the URL:

…er. Well not really. Did you expect an answer!

The fact is that I don’t know why so many individuals and groups of individuals are so inept and so incompetent, that it’s puts all our security into jeopardy.

This is a post from Will Norris, a computer programming guy, who points out in the above link, how a big airline Delta, naffs up basic privacy and security. [...]

[...] Security questions are an anti-pattern. There are better mechanisms available. Why would anyone intentionally design a new system that uses password-equivalents that users don’t realize are as sensitive as their actual passwords? [...]