The other day I went to register at one of those sites that requires that you choose security questions in case you forget your password. I have always found these vexing, but as they wander further afield from “mother’s maiden name,” they bother me more and more. I haven’t been able to put my finger on why that is, until the other day when it finally occurred to me. The questions are biased as hell to people with a certain kind of life experience. And let’s just say it ain’t an inner city experience.
There’s been a lot of research into cultural bias in testing. But people who are of the predominant culture may not realize just how much bias there is in everyday life. As a Latina, I observe this all the time, at work, at social gatherings in my nice little middle-class neighborhood, at my kids’ school. When you haven’t had a middle-class upbringing, talking to people who did and don’t realize others didn’t can be something of an enlightening experience.
When I saw the options for “security” questions (screenshot below), they made me mad. All I wanted was to open a damn account. Instead, I was left to ponder which of these questions I could possibly choose (I had to choose three, by the way) with my life experiences that clearly have been way different from the person who wrote the questions.
Here they are, the “secret” questions. (Secret, I suppose, to those of us who didn’t have Volvos in the driveway and purebred dogs).
Skipping right over that first one (that’s not cultural, that’s just my lifestyle choice, but the question still does exhibit a certain bias) and going to the second one: what was my favorite place to visit as a child? Let me see, it’s so hard to pick between those European vacations and Caribbean getaways. And if they mean everyday visits, I wonder if they can appreciate how sad they’ve made me by reminding me that one of the highlights of my day as a child was walking down a steep hill and across a local highway to buy groceries on foot with my mother.
Model of the first car I drove. Again, the assumptions.
First live concert I attended! Because everyone’s got hundreds of dollars to drop on concerts!
Favorite restaurant in college! Assumption upon assumption. First, college! Then, enough expendable cash for not just restaurant eating but a preferred restaurant out of many.
And roommates: white people, listen up. That’s your thing. We don’t do roommates. Living with strangers sounds creepy to us.
Now, I did go to college and I still remember the make of my first car (a 10-year-old rusted hand-me-down Toyota Corolla which a rich boss gave me as a bonus while I worked my way through college in a law firm). But the frustration that these questions produce in me make me realize that pe0ple are living in their bubbles.
Yes, I could have gone the route that some people “in the know” suggest, of choosing random answers, like “pasta” and “helmet.” Then, every time you log in anywhere you know your answers are always “pasta” and “helmet.” But, dammit, is it too much to ask that banks and other institutions which require “secret questions” have said questions written by someone who knows that there are a variety of experiences out in the world?