Security tips for progressive bankers

Yesterday, as I do toward the end of every month, I logged in to my Vancity Visa account in order to find out my ending balance, so that I can then log in to my Vancity chequing account and pay it.

I was not deposited at my account summary screen as usual, however. Instead I was presented with a screen that demanded that I update my security settings. Specifically, I was ordered to choose five security questions. I use the words “demanded” and “ordered” because Vancity displayed this screen to me with no option to bypass or postpone the update, which forced me to answer the questions if I wanted to access my account.

Now, the whole point of having security questions is that they allow one to verify one’s legitimacy by answering questions that are a) easy for the legitimate account holder to remember, and b) unlikely to be guessed by a hacker. I tend to be a little sceptical about b), given the extent to which people post personal shit online these days. What, hackers can’t use Facebook?

Given the choice of questions provided by Vancity Visa, I can safely report that a) is not very reliable either.

There are several questions on the list that don’t apply to me at all (I never had pets as a child, for instance). Others could be answered differently depending on interpretation. The worst are the three choices in question 2: I have no children, I don’t remember any high school teachers’ names let alone have a favourite, and since we lived in two different cities when I was in grade three we had two different addresses. Vancity, however, forces me to answer one of these questions anyway. Six months from now when they ask me What is the middle name of your oldest child? I’ll probably forget that I named the nonexistent her “Annie” and get locked out of my own account.

Irritating as the arbitrary question selection is, however, that’s not what irritates me most about these questions.

If you’re not entirely familiar with Vancity, it’s one of those sorta lefty-progressive organisations, in this case referred to by Board of Directors chair Virginia Weiler as a values-based financial co-operative. I won’t dispute this claim, for Vancity probably does do considerably more good work with its profits, based on values that I (in some cases) share, than mainstream Canadian banks. That’s why my extensive aggregation of personal wealth is stored there and not at the Imperial Bank of Colonial Majesty.

One of my ongoing dissatisfactions with the middle-class soft-left in Canada is that it often seems that there is a very narrow band within which it (if I may be forgiven for the moment for speaking of “it” as some sort of single-minded monolith) is willing to be progressive. The limited nature of the security questions provided by Vancity, I think, describes quite well what I mean. Here’;s the full list:

Security Question 1*
What was your childhood nickname?
In what city did you meet your spouse/significant other?
What is the name of your favorite childhood friend?

Security Question 2*
What is the middle name of your oldest child?
What was the last name of your favorite high school teacher?
What street did you live on in third grade?

Security Question 3*
What is your maternal grandmother’s maiden name?
In what city or town was your first job?
What is the name of your elementary school?

Security Question 4*
What is the color of your first car?
What school did you attend in sixth grade?
What was the name of your first pet?

Security Question 5*
What is your maternal grandfather’s first name?
What was the name brand of your first car?
What was the last name of your favorite elementary teacher?

Maybe if you grew up in some sort of comfortable, middle-class suburban ideal (cough, cough) Vancity’s security questions don’t sound particularly troublesome. But if you think about them a little, they represent a pretty specific sort of idealised western life experience. What about the people who had early life experiences that weren’t quite so idyllic and typical as these questions seem to suggest is normal?

What if your childhood nickname was “fatty zitface”? Do you need to be reminded of it by Vancity in order to bank securely? What if your first pet was skinned and roasted by your dad on your family’s third night in the refugee camp? What if you were sexually abused by the gym teacher in sixth grade? What if your maternal grandmother’s first name was Mieczysław and you’re dyslexic?

Extreme examples, perhaps, but maybe they’re useful as a reminder that there’s a lot more diversity to life experience in this country, in this world, than is represented in this boring list of inane questions that were apparently written by the glee club committee over at St. George’s school.

I don’t imagine that Vancity staff actually compiled these questions themselves. More likely, they’re provided directly by Visa, Inc. along with a turnkey website branded with Vancity’s logo (one hint is the American spelling of “favourite”). That just seems to reinforce my complaint about what is generally accepted as progressive, though. One might think that a progressive credit union forced to use a foreign company’s services might at least make an attempt to prevent the homogenisation of upper North American cultural references.

Vancity and Visa could avoid this whole problem if they’d just let me write my own damn security questions instead of feeding me a predetermined, largely meaningless list.

Herewith, I provide a set of possible questions more relevant to my own life experience and therefore, more likely to be remembered when needed:

Security Question 1*
What brand of cigarette did you first smoke when you were twelve?

Security Question 2*
What was the name of the gym teacher who called you a “fag” in grade seven?

Security Question 3*
What device did your mother use to apply “corporal punishment”?

Security Question 4*
On what kind of liquor did you first get sick from overdrinking?

Security Question 5*
What was the name of the bully who threatened to beat you up in grade eight?

Thanks, Vancity Visa! Once you’ve added these to my account, I know you’ll be my Card You Can Feel Good About!™



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