Wednesday, July 4, 2007

The Survey Generation

Things survive on the internet. Nothing really ever goes away. Sometimes, it gets harder to find, but your best bet is to assume that, once there, it'll stay there. Forever.

Surveys are a good example. They can be fun. They can be revealing. They can be dangerous. They can be dangerously revealing.

Got kids? No, this is not a survey question. Well, actually, it is, but not in this instance. In this instance, it's rhetorical. In a survey, it would likely be followed by "How many?" "What are their names?" "Birthdays?" Now, next to each other those questions look pretty suspicious. But a survey will get you to drop your guard by interspersing innocuous questions like, "Do they ever eat macaroni?" "What was their last injury that required a bandaid?" "Are they walking yet?" etc.

In this instance, it's prelude to saying, Get online and watch what they're posting on their personal sites, like MySpace and FaceBook, and the like. They may not have bank accounts yet, but one day they will. And when the bank asks security questions like "What's your mother's maiden name?" "What town were you born in?" "What was your first pet's name?" "What was your first car?" "What's your favorite color?" (all of which I've seen as security questions at one time or another), do you think they'll remember that they've answered all of those questions for the world to see (or at least all of their "friends"--who for most kids, number well into the hundreds) on MySpace or FaceBook.

I took the title of this post from one of the hits I got when I typed "myspace surveys security" on Google. Ethan Kaplan, had an interesting blog post about the same tendency, but less from a security perspective than a psychological one. It's worth reading though.

Meanwhile, our children are likely to be challenged, when the time comes for them to set up security questions for online financial accounts; that is, if they're web-savvy enough to remember that the purpose of those questions is to ask them things that only they would know the answers to, and then to remember that, oh yeah, several hundred of my "friends" and by means of "extended networks" their "friends" and so on, know those answers too. Because, as I said at the beginning, nothing on the web ever dies, and just because you can't find it anymore, doesn't mean that even a poorly skilled hacker can't.

So, think twice about answering all those survey questions, or try to get your kids to, or at least try to school them in which ones are best answered, "None of your beeswax." And then, after you've schooled them, plan to remind them, and remind them, and remind them. Nothing on the web dies, but good advice has a half-life shorter than most man-made elements. Good luck.