Monday, June 11, 2012

Pins, Passwords and UserIDs; all the numbers of our lives

“Pictures hanging in a hallway
And the fragment of this song
Half remembered names and faces
But to whom do they belong
When you knew that it was over
Were you suddenly aware
That the autumn leaves were turning
To the color of her hair

Like a circle in a spiral
Like a wheel within a wheel
Never ending or beginning,
On an ever spinning wheel
As the images unwind
Like the circles that you find
In the windmills of your mind”

English lyrics from the song “Windmills of Your Mind”
Marilyn and Alan Bergman
(music composed by Michel Legrand)


I had an interesting encounter with Customer Service this morning. We had been early registrants for toll transponders, when such service came to our area. A year ago, we discovered that the transponder we had was no longer operating; we would go through the transponder toll lane, and no telltale beep would issue forth to signify that our toll had been registered. The system had photo identifications of our cars, however, and so we were never in violation, as the photo would be compared to our account information and verified.

Somewhere along the line, about a year ago, this was no longer good enough, and we were contacted by letter, and asked to call in to unsnarl what had previously not been snarly, but now for some reason was.

We called in, and the customer service person told us we needed to get not one, but two transponders. We could no longer share one between both autos. And they asked us to send them back the one we had that was no longer working. We did so.

Now, a year later, we have two transponders, but were sent a notice of “evasion of toll”. Guess what, one of the “newer” transponders no longer seems to be working. My husband checks out our on-line account (this was one of the “changes” or “upgrades” to transponder “service” over the years, so that customers can do all the work and the transponder people don’t have to hire as many customer service representatives). When we initiated our online account, years ago, all you needed was a customer identification code and password.

Today, when I called the transponder customer service line, negotiating the knarly phone system, (including the ubiquitous “please listen carefully, as our menu options have changed,” message that has appeared on most customer service phone systems in the last ten years, never to be changed again, but always to repeat that it has been changed, even if that change was made years ago, and not yesterday...), and was asked for a four-digit pin number.

Well, we don’t have a four-digit pin number. We never had one for this account; all we ever needed was a password and user identification code. So, I waited, while the automated voice yammered at me “the code you entered [even though I had not entered one] is not valid. Please enter your…” (sigh)

Finally, the machine gave up on me, as I waited on the line, and kicked me over to a live representative.

I gave her the account number, in response to her first question. Then she asked me for a pin number. I said, “we don’t have one.”

“You should have a pin number, and I cannot help you if you cannot give it to me.”

“Can’t we verify by address and phone number?”

“What is your address?” I supplied the address.

“And what email address would the account be under?” I gave my husband’s current email address.

“That is not correct.” Oops. My husband had changed his email address within the last six months, but had not updated it in the, oh, gee, several HUNDRED accounts we have all over the internet.

I supplied his previous email address.

“That is not correct.” GAH! We had opened this account so long ago that the email address used was one that was for an email service no longer available, owing to merging and submerging and overmerging of undermergable corporations by ├╝bermergable ones. “I am afraid I cannot help you.”

“Look,” I said, “I am just trying to tell you that of the three transponders listed, we only have two. One of them was no longer working, and we were told to mail it back, which we did.”

“Where did you send the transponder?”

“This was about a year ago. I know that they gave us an address over the phone, and we sent it there. Obviously, things have changed quite a lot since then, for you and for us. I no longer have a record of that information.”

“If you cannot verify your account, I cannot help you.”

“I can give you the numbers of the transponders we do have, surely that is something that will verify our account. You should be able to see this information.”

The rep listened patiently as I recited what records I did have to proffer, in the form of transponder identification numbers. I heard typing in the background.

“Yes, these are listed on your account.”

“Thank you, yes. And the other one that is listed we no longer have, as we sent it back.”

“Since you cannot verify your pin number or your email address, I will have to send you a letter in the mail about how to properly update your account.”

“I see…”

That phone call took about 25 minutes, and when it was over, I was really no closer toward my goal that when I started.

I might understand all of this multiple code business, if security were really at stake with regard to “the product.” This is not a stock transaction or a bank transaction, and while we use a credit card to pay for our toll transactions, surely our address should be enough to verify we have an account. It works for other accounts.

This kind of security is rather misplaced in our scheme of priorities. The fact that we must have unique codes (passwords, user identifications, pin numbers, etc.) for every single internet account (which often is a secondary account associated with an original service begun before the internet was available to the public) is nothing less crazy-making. We have a huge spreadsheet to tell us what all our codes are. Seems a little ridiculous, given that most of these accounts are not dealing with trade secrets, government secrets or anything except a very occasional monetary transaction that, yes, should be secure, but is often transacted through a secure webpage that you are transferred to on the website.

In fact, this is just how we were able to change our credit card information on the transponder site, without the need for a pin number!!!!

Meanwhile, customers pay the price for the inefficiency of the agency that does not remove old information when it is supplied or send a message informing the need for new, additional means of identification, like a pin number.

While we are chasing after the “circles in spirals” and the “wheels in wheels” of petty business bureaucracies, what more important life experiences are we missing?

Is this the aspect of technology that was supposed to make life easier and less work-intensive?

Is this the windmill of your mind, or mine?

Perhaps we are all now face-to-face with the dilemmas of “Don Quixote.”