United Airlines has rolled out a series of updates to its Web site that the company claims will help beef up the security of customer accounts. But at first glance, the core changes — moving from a 4-digit PINs to password and requiring customers to pick five different security questions and answers — may seem like a security playbook copied from Yahoo.com, circa 2009. Here’s a closer look at what’s changed in how United authenticates customers, and hopefully a bit of insight into what the nation’s fourth-largest airline is trying to accomplish with its new system.
United, like many other carriers, has long relied on a frequent flyer account number and a 4-digit personal identification number (PIN) for authenticating customers at its Web site. This has left customer accounts ripe for takeover by crooks who specialize in hacking and draining loyalty accounts for cash.
Earlier this year, however, United began debuting new authentication systems wherein customers are asked to pick a strong password and to choose from five sets of security questions and pre-selected answers. Customers may be asked to provide the answers to two of these questions if they are logging in from a device United has never seen associated with that account, trying to reset a password, or interacting with United via phone.
Some of the questions and answers United come up with.
Yes, you read that right: The answers are pre-selected as well as the questions. For example, to the question “During what month did you first meet your spouse or significant other,” users may select only from one of…you guessed it — 12 answers (January through December).
The list of answers to another security question, “What’s your favorite pizza topping,” had me momentarily thinking I using a pull down menu at Dominos.com — waffling between “pepperoni” and “mashed potato.” (Fun fact: If you were previously unaware that mashed potatoes qualify as an actual pizza topping, United has you covered with an answer to this bit of trivia in its Frequently Asked Questions page on the security changes.)
I recorded a short video of some of these rather unique questions and answers.
United said it opted for pre-defined questions and answers because the company has found “the majority of security issues our customers face can be traced to computer viruses that record typing, and using predefined answers protects against this type of intrusion.”
This struck me as a dramatic oversimplification of the threat. I asked United why they stated this, given that any halfway decent piece of malware that is capable of keylogging is likely also doing what’s known as “form grabbing” — essentially snatching data submitted in forms — regardless of whether the victim types in this information or selects it from a pull-down menu.
Benjamin Vaughn, director of IT security intelligence at United, said the company was randomizing the questions to confound bot programs that seek to automate the submission of answers, and that security questions answered wrongly would be “locked” and not asked again. He added that multiple unsuccessful attempts at answering these questions could result in an account being locked, necessitating a call to customer service.
United said it plans to use these same questions and answers — no longer passwords or PINs — to authenticate those who call in to the company’s customer service hotline. When I went to step through United’s new security system, I discovered my account was locked for some reason. A call to United customer service unlocked it in less than two minutes. All the agent asked me for was my frequent flyer number and my name.
(Incidentally, United still somewhat relies on “security through obscurity” to protect the secrecy of customer usernames by very seldom communicating the full frequent flyer number in written and digital communications with customers. I first pointed this out in my story about the data that can be gleaned from a United boarding pass barcode, because while the full frequent flyer number is masked with “x’s” on the boarding pass, the full number is stored on the pass’s barcode).
Conventional wisdom dictates that what little additional value security questions add to the equation is nullified when the user is required to choose from a set of pre-selected answers. After all, the only sane and secure way to use secret questions if one must is to pick answers that are not only incorrect and/or irrelevant to the question, but that also can’t be guessed or gleaned by collecting facts about you from background checking sites or from your various social media presences online.
Google published some fascinating research last year that spoke to the efficacy and challenges of secret questions and answers, concluding that they are “neither secure nor reliable enough to be used as a standalone account recovery mechanism.”
Overall, the Google research team found the security answers are either somewhat secure or easy to remember—but rarely both. Put another way, easy answers aren’t secure, and hard answers aren’t as useable.
But wait, you say: United asks you to answer up to five security questions. So more security questions equals more layers for the bad guys to hack through, which equals more security, right? Well, not so fast, the Google security folks found.
“When users had to answer both together, the spread between the security and usability of secret questions becomes increasingly stark,” the researchers wrote. “The probability that an attacker could get both answers in ten guesses is 1%, but users will recall both answers only 59% of the time. Piling on more secret questions makes it more difficult for users to recover their accounts and is not a good solution, as a result.”
Vaughn said the beauty of United’s approach is that it uniquely addresses the problem identified by Google researchers — that so many people in the study had so much trouble remembering the answers — by providing users with a set of pre-selected answers from which to choose.
An infographic from Google’s research study on secret questions. Source: Google.
The security team at United reached out a few weeks back to highlight the new security changes, and in a conversation this week they asked what I thought about their plan. I replied that if United is getting pushback from security experts and tech publications about its approach, that’s probably because security people are techies/nerds at heart, and techies/nerds want options and stuff. Or at least the ability to add, enable or disable certain security features.
But the reality today is that almost any security system designed for use by tens of millions of people who aren’t techies is always going to cater to the least sophisticated user on the planet — and that’s about where the level of security for that system is bound to stay for a while.
So I told the United people that I was a somewhat despondent about this reality, mainly because I end up having little other choice but to fly United quite often.
“At the scale that United faces, we felt this approach was really optimal to fix this problem for our customers,” Vaughn said. “We have to start with something that is universally available to our customers. We can’t sent a text message to you when you’re on an airplane or out of the country, we can’t rely on all of our customers to have a smart phone, and we didn’t feel it would be a great use of our customers’ time to send them in the mail 93 million secure ID tokens. We felt a powerful onus to do something, and the something we implemented we feel improves security greatly, especially for non-technical savvy customers.”
Arlan McMillan, United’s chief information security officer, said the basic system that the company has just rolled out is built to accommodate additional security features going forward. McMillan said United has discussed rolling out some type of app-based time-based one-time password (TOTP) systems (Google Authenticator is one popular TOTP example).
“It is our intent to provide additional capabilities to our customers, and to even bring in additional security controls if [customers] choose to,” McMillan said. “We set the minimum bar here, and we think that’s a higher bar than you’re going to find at most of our competitors. And we’re going to do more, but we had to get this far first.”
Lest anyone accuse me of claiming that the thrust of this story is somehow newsy, allow me to recommend some related, earlier stories worth reading about United’s security changes: