Let’s kill security questions
Security questions still exist. They are less dominant now, but we haven’t yet condemned them as an industry hard enough so that they stop being added to authentication flows.
But they are bad. They are like passwords, but more easily guessable, because you have a password hint. And while there are opinions that they might be okay in certain scenarios, they have so many pitfalls that in practice we should just not consider them an option.
What are those pitfalls? Social engineering. Almost any security question’s answer is guessable by doing research on the target person online. We share more about our lives and don’t even realize how that affects us security-wise. Many security questions have a limited set of possible answers that can be enumerated with a brute force attack (e.g. what are the most common pet names; what are the most common last names in a given country for a given period of time, in order to guess someone’s mother’s maiden name; what are the high schools in the area where the person lives, and so on). So when someone wants to takeover your account, if all they have to do is open your Facebook profile or try 20-30 options, you have no protection.
But what are they for in the first place? Account recovery. You have forgotten your password and the system asks you some details about you to allow you to reset your password. We already have largely solved the problem of account recovery – send a reset password link to the email of the user. If the system itself is an email service, or in a couple of other scenarios, you can use a phone number, where a one-time password is sent for recovery purposes (or a secondary email, for email providers).
So we have the account recovery problem largely solved, why are security questions still around? Inertia, I guess. And the five monkeys experiment. There is no good reason to have a security question if you can have recovery email or phone. And you can safely consider that to be true (ok, maybe there are edge cases).
There are certain types of account recovery measures that resemble security questions and can be implemented as an additional layer, on top of a phone or email recovery. For more important services (e.g. your Facebook account or your main email), it may not be safe to consider just owning the phone or just having access to the associated email to be enough. Phones get stolen, emails get “broken into”. That’s why a security-like set of questions may serve as additional protection. For example – guessing recent activity. Facebook does that sometimes by asking you about your activity on the site or about your friends. This is not perfect, as it can be monitored by the malicious actor, but is an option. For your email, you can be asked what are the most recent emails that you’ve sent, and be presented with options to choose from, with some made up examples. These things are hard to implement because of geographic and language differences, but “guess your recent activity among these choices”, e.g. dynamically defined security questions, may be an acceptable additional step for account recovery.
But fixed security questions – no. Let’s kill those. I’m not the first to argue against security questions, but we need to be reminded that certain bad security practices should be left in the past.
Authentication is changing. We are desperately trying to get rid of the password itself (and still failing to do so), but before we manage to do so, we should first get rid of the “bad password in disguise”, the security question.