Gas station without pumps

2016 July 29

Two-factor authentication done wrong

Filed under: Uncategorized — gasstationwithoutpumps @ 08:53
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The Social Security Administration has decided to add two-factor authentication to the website, where you can check the status of your Social Security account. They’ve picked a fairly standard way to do it:

When you sign in at with your username and password, we will ask you to add your text-enabled cell phone number.  The purpose of providing your cell phone number is that, each time you log in to your account with your username and password, we will send you a one-time security code you must also enter to log in successfully to your account.

Each time you sign into your account, you will complete two steps:

  • Step 1:  Enter your username and password.
  • Step 2:  Enter the security code we text to your cell phone (cell phone provider’s text message and data rates may apply).

Unfortunately, unlike almost all other two-factor systems, they provided no opt-out:

If you do not have a text-enabled cell phone or you do not wish to provide your cell phone number, you will not be able to access your my Social Security account. 

Given that the people most interested in using are also the people with the lowest probability of having text-enabled cell phones, this seems extremely short-sighted.  According to a study by the Pew Research Center, only about 30% of adults over 65 have a smartphone and only 78% have a cellphone of any sort.  It seems really weird to insist that 22% (or more—some cell phones have no text capability and some older adults can’t use the text capability of their phones) of the adults over 65 won’t be allowed to access their Social Security accounts by computer.

I’ll probably have to deactivate the online account when they turn on the mandatory two-factor authentication next month.  Of course, given that they’ve not provided any opt-out, they probably won’t let me deactivate the account  without a cell phone. With any luck, though, they’ll realize (eventually) that they made a bone-headed decision and allow those of us without cell phones some other way to access

Update 2016 Sept 1: The Social Security Administration admitted they made a mistake and have removed the mandatory two-factor identification.  It is still available and highly recommended, but no longer required.

2010 August 22

Cool interactive visualization

Filed under: Uncategorized — gasstationwithoutpumps @ 06:03
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I’m usually more fond of static graphics than interactive ones for scientific visualization.  A good graphic has a particular story to tell, and the creator of the graphic should put some effort into figuring out the best way to view the data to make that point.  Sometimes a single view does not suffice to make the point clearly, and something more interactive is needed.  This is often the case for 3D protein structures, so presentations often use a molecular viewer with highlighting provided by the author.  (There is a collection of such images using jmol as the viewer on proteopedia, though I find the server access and download time so long that I rarely bother to go there, especially as only a small fraction of the protein structures have hand-done scripts for making a specific point.)

I recently came across a different interactive graphic that clearly presents a complex data set that would be hard to capture in a single picture.  It shows the age distribution of different countries at different times, and has been set up to compare different countries.  It is rather cool to move the year slider and see the baby-boom generation as a pulse in the (US) distribution moving forward and dissipating.  In other countries, the baby boom is a little later than in the US, and not dissipating as much.  Indeed, in Italy the peak of the baby boom is about 7 years later and there is enormous drop in the birth rate after then baby boom.  For exploration, I would have liked to be able to superimpose different years, and not just different countries, but this graphic is surprisingly effective at showing the differences in population structure in different countries (though data from some of the less developed countries would have been useful for comparison).

The change in the US population structure and the projections for how that population structure is expected to change for the next 40 years do suggest that we are likely to need to make some modifications to Social Security, as the fraction of the population past retirement age is growing rapidly.  The least disruptive change would be to raise the retirement age gradually, so that roughly the same fraction of the population remains in the workforce.

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