Delivering Complexity at the Expense of Security

June 20, 2012

The DeliveryDemon is frequently flabbergasted by the sheer stupidity demonstrated by so many financial institutions when it comes to security. They obstinately pretend that imposing complexity on account access equates to security, in the face of all evidence to the contrary. At the same time they refuse to acknowledge that their own processes are often staggeringly insecure.

Some time ago after a trip abroad, the DeliveryDemon had a phone message claiming her credit card had been compromised, and asking her to ring the issuer on an unidentifiable number. It clearly sounded like a scam which needed to be reported to the issuer. So the DeliveryDemon phoned the switchboard and asked to be put through to the person who had left the message. She was unsurprised when the switchboard had never heard of this person, and asked to be put through to the security and fraud department – where she found herself talking to the person who had left the suspect message.

So how many security mistakes was that?

  • Leaving a message about a card compromise on a landline answering machine without knowing who might pick it up
  • Asking the cardholder to ring a number which could belong to any scammer
  • Creating a situation designed to justify a request for secure information, using a process riddled with fundamental security flaws
  • Preventing a customer from carrying out basic security checks by using a name not recognised by the switchboard.

But the biggest mistake of all was the fact that some time afterwards the DeliveryDemon had to deal with the identical flawed process. Needless to say, the DeliveryDemon had complained to the card issuer on the first occasion, yet the organisatioj had taken no notice of the complaint and had continued knowingly to operate processes which were fundamentally insecure.

This type of stupidity is remarkably common in the financial services sector, and a couple of very similar examples are described in an earlier post .

https://deliverydemon.wordpress.com/2012/04/02/delivering-poor-banking-security/

The other side of this refusal to operate secure processes is a determined effort to create barriers to prevent a customer from accessing their own funds. This goes hand in hand with lengthy and inequitable Ts and Cs which attempt to absolve banks from any responsibility whatsoever. The DeliveryDemon recently encountered this while opening a very basic bank account. This ‘simple’ account required no less than EIGHT authentication factors, including providing answers to some remarkably stupid questions.

  • A memorable number? Seriously? Numbers are not intrinsically memorable. Those which are memorable usually relate to public domain information, which is hardly secure.
  • Details of various third parties? Public domain again. It is also questionable in data protection terms whether a bank should be asking for information about third parties who have nothing to do with the account.
  • Favourite TV programs, newspapers, historical person, sleb, town? Get a life! This sort of preference is transient and likely to be forgotten months or years down the line when it is eventually needed in order to deal with some call centre drone who is not empowered to think beyond the mindless detail on the screen in front of them.

This sort of pseudo security is not just stupid in its own right, it is creating a situation where complexity makes life difficult for the customer, while being used as an excuse for financial institutions to try to avoid their own responsibilities.

Put these so-called security processes in the context of today’s digital native. Basic security advice is not to use the same details in multiple places, since compromise of one account can lead to compromise elsewhere. Typically, an account asks for 4 pieces of information, even when no financial transactions are involved. Try counting them up. Even without an intricate lifestyle the following range of accounts is pretty commonplace.

  • Mortgage
  • Mortgage-related insurance
  • Life insurance
  • Health insurance
  • Current account
  • Savings account
  • Debit card
  • Credit card
  • ISA
  • Pension
  • E-mail account
  • Work e-mail account
  • Mobile account
  • Landline / broadband account
  • Car insurance
  • Car radio code
  • Electricity account
  • Gas account
  • Water account
  • Council tax account
  • Supermarket account
  • Amazon account
  • i-Tunes account
  • Comparison site accounts – up to half a dozen
  • Social media accounts – another half a dozen
  • Technology support arrangements – say 3
  • Travel accounts for commuters – another couple
  • Online information sources such as newspapers, news sites and the like – say 3.

All of these want a login ID and a password, plus several additional pieces of information for ‘security’ should you be unable to log in. Security guidance suggest that unique information should be used for each situation, and that the information should not be written down in a recognisable format, even when months or years may elapse between accesses to the account.

Put this into the context of the real world. Current security guidance expects the individual to memorise in excess of 172 unique pieces of information, and to relate each piece of information to one of 43 or more situations. Current practice is for Ts and Cs to forbid keeping written records of passwords in any useful format. This is complete nonsense, not security.

So what’s the answer? There are organisations which can be used to store multiple passwords, but these then become a single point of failure should the access password be compromised or the organisation’s own security be breached. It’s not clear whether this sort of password storage is acceptable under access Ts and Cs either.  Even if banks start to give some form of approval to these organisations, it could be withdrawn, leaving the customer with the option of dealing with multiple password holders or changing to a new one. If a security breach underlies the reason for change, that would mean working through every single account to change access details. In some circumstances that may mean the delay of going through the account provider to replace codes which they do not allow the customer to change.

The current security situation is clearly unsatisfactory, ineffective,  and unfair to the customer. The DeliveryDemon thinks it is time that organisations which are responsible for security got together with both security and usability experts to come up with a solution which is designed to protect the customer’s interests, not a solution based on allowing financial institutions to avoid responsibility.

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Olympics…..We’re Dooooooomed!!!! Jubilee….We’re Dooooooomder!!!!

April 25, 2012

The Delivery Demon isn’t really much of a spectator so she didn’t bother tying up her credit card limit in the fiasco of Olympic ticket sales. Why put all that effort into a lottery level probability of seeing an event that might be of some slight interest? She stood back from that, leaving the remote chance of getting a ticket to those who really wanted to watch. As the chaos was delivered, she felt a few pangs of sympathy to those sportspeople who, even if they managed to get tickets, had very little opportunity of getting tickets to see the sports they actually participate in. The whole setup seemed pretty half-baked.

Beyond some vague plans to avoid the areas of transport mayhem during the Olympics, the DeliveryDemon has tended to ignore the media hype, but a recurring theme has been carping for her attention in news reports. There seems to be a developing assumption that the Olympics, like the equally-hyped Jubilee, will damage the economy. The DeliveryDemon recollects some reference to think tanks in those reports but a cursory web search hasn’t provided any hard evidence, so perhaps the reporters concerned are inventing or misinterpreting. Whatever the case, the DeliveryDemon has become interested in what those reports imply.

The general theme is that workers will be taking holidays and days off, will be surreptitiously following the events on their mobiles and their work PCs, will be spending long lunches in pubs, watching events unfold. Transport chaos will make people late for work. Workers will be tired and hungover from late night TV watching and alcoholic celebrations. Production will plummet, customer service will suffer, the economy will drag its way into another recession. Two big events in a single year? We’re all doooooomed!!!

So what are the facts behind the scaremongering?

  • Yes, people will want time off – they usually do in the summer. But it may be easier to achieve a spread of holiday dates as a significant number of people may choose to avoid holidaying during the Olympic peak times – much as many people avoid taking their break during school holidays.
  • Transport chaos? Commuters are used to this but it’s likely to have a worse than usual impact on venue access routes and the air and rail hubs which serve them. That’s not the whole country, and the areas concerned have a relatively high concentration of work which can be carried out remotely with a little bit of forethought.
  • People will spend more than they plan then cut back after the event? Pretty normal for any holiday type event, except that the spend will be in the UK.

So far, so normal. No reason to predict a recessive impact from normal human behaviour. So what might these pundits be suggesting?

  • All that well-paid Olympics work will disappear in the aftermath, true. Why should that be a surprise to anyone?
  • In some – but not all – businesses, less work will be done during the various events and celebrations. Really?
  • There will be a fairly heavy demand for time off during the peak period. A bit like Christmas and the school holidays. After all, people work to live, not the other way round.

Either the reporters who come up with these doom-laden headlines lack the most elementary understanding of business planning, or they are trying to deliver the message that UK management is so lacking in basic business skills that the entire country went down the plughole years ago.

The DeliveryDemon wishes that those recruiting for media positions would realise that those jobs have a need for basic commonsense and the ability to use data sensibly.


Delivering Sports Participation

April 3, 2012

The DeliveryDemon isn’t hugely fascinated by the 2012 Olympics. She didn’t bother with the ticket allocation fiasco. She hopes she won’t be in London, or near one of the few non-London venues during the event. She has no intention of going anywhere to peer through crowds at anyone trotting along with a badly designed bit of metalwork, which is the nearest many Brits will get to the Olympics. She certainly won’t be watching the Olympics on television, as she still hasn’t found a good reason to go out and buy one.

According to BBC talking heads, this means that the DeliveryDemon is not interested in sport. No matter that she walks for miles in the mountains and across country – that doesn’t count. Nor does bodyflying, an activity which tests muscles most people never get round to using. As soon as she finishes rehab from last year’s skydiving accident, she aims to be back flowriding and doing the occasional bit of running. But she’s not interested in sport. The DeliveryDemon was delighted when recovery reached a point that allowed her back in the gym and the pool – but that’s not sport. She’s looking forward to being able to take winter holidays with ice climbing and snowshoeing and cross country skiing and dog sledging – but according to those in the know, she’s not a sporty person. Obviously not, since she isn’t inclined to sit on the couch, munching and drinking, while watching others do something which may be active – or which may be as inactive as darts or snooker or angling or even poker, all of which are skilled, none of which contribute much to the body’s need for physical activity.

There’s a lot of justification of Olympic costs on the grounds that the fact of the Olympics will increase sports participation. It’s a pity that those who made the decisions to spend shed loads of public money didn’t do some realistic thinking:

  • What does participation actually mean?
  • How can you demonstrate that it’s happening?

Since the powers that spend our taxes clearly haven’t done this thinking, please allow the DeliveryDemon to suggest a few actions and measures.

Work is spread throughout the country so that people don’t have to spend so much time commuting that there’s no weekday time for anything else and no weekend time because weekends are used up with recovering from the week’s commute and doing all the chores there wasn’t time for during the week.

School offer a range of activities within the timetable with sufficient variety so that all children can particpate without feeling useless or stupid, and sufficient competition to give the competitive a way of measuring their success.

Sports funding includes reasonable support for public facilities which provide ready access for the public at times when people want to use them.

Bylaws and bureaucrats do not use health and safety as an excuse to prevent popular and emerging sports like inline skating and skateboarding and freerunning in public places.

Planning decisions require provision of public open spaces including green space, and sports facilties, with properly thought out arrangements for their long term upkeep.

That’s just for starters. The Olympics will long be remembered for the white elephant developments it leaves behind, but any effect it has on sports participation will be as transient as the annual blip  in tennis court use around the time of Wimbledon – but without Wimbledon’s annual influence. If the powers that be seriously want to influence public health for the better, they need to think more pragmatically than low usage monolithic development and nanny state pronouncements.


Banks need a foot in the real world

February 16, 2009

Who, running a small business, would be able to pay out bonuses if they were begging the bank to extend credit terms because the business wasn’t making enough money to balance the books?  The owner of a small business feels bad if he can’t reward hard working staff but he knows he has to return the business to a viable state before there’s money for bonuses. Why should things be different for a loss-making bank subsidised by the government? The priority should be to return the bank’s business to viability, not to to use the subsidy to pretend that the problem doesn’t exist. If that means that hard working staff don’t get a bonus, so be it. After all, many hard working taxpayers in other sectors  face short working hours or redundancy, bank workers are not a special case.

If a government steps in to act as the bankers’ banker, the government has a duty to act as a responsible banker. The government should have a clear purpose in mind when it makes the loan and the purpose should be a condition of the loan. The government should know how to tell if that purpose is being fulfilled. And, given that the money comes from the public purse, the criteria should be visible to the public who fund the rescue package.