Thursday, October 24, 2013

Battle of man vs. machine hits insurance exchanges -- Oct. 24, 2013 column


President Barack Obama has called in the cavalry to fix the health exchange rollout fiasco. He has a new tech czar and “some of the best IT talent in the country” working 24-7 to remove the chewing  gum clogging the system.   

Too bad Obama can’t fix human nature. People naturally resent playing by tech rules, even when it’s in their best interest. More on that in a minute.

Congressional hearings with political overtones are investigating the botched website. Contractors who engineered parts of the contraption blame each other and the federal government. Republicans, and even a few Democrats, want the head of Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius. She will face the wrath of the House Energy and Commerce Committee next week.

The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, which was in charge of the rollout, went ahead with it despite warnings the system wouldn’t work.

An insurance executive who was involved in an industry testing group told The Washington Post that it was clear a month before the launch that CMS was still working on how the exchanges would handle enrollment, federal subsidies and the security of consumers’ personal information, such as income.

That’s a lot. But the last item -- security of personal information – is most crucial. Millions of people have to give up their birth dates, Social Security numbers, employment and income information to sign up for insurance. For people to sign up, they must be confident the government will keep their sensitive information safe.   

And that leads to another issue. As bad as the tech problems are, the inevitable conflict between man and machine is more troublesome. The insurance marketplaces – like other online accounts – safeguard personal information by requiring customers to answer security questions to verify their identity.

Big problem: Many people are flummoxed by online security questions, The Wall Street Journal reported Wednesday.

Among the questions: What was your high school mascot? Favorite childhood superhero? Street you lived on in third grade?

“I don’t think they took baby boomers into account when they invented those questions,” a 58-year-old massage therapist in Texas told the Journal. Margo Benge said she gave up when she could answer only two of the 12 possible questions – and she needed to answer three.  “I barely remember two weeks ago, let alone childhood,” she said.

And I thought it was just me.

I’ve been resisting online security questions for years. The problem is the questions sound so reasonable.  In what school did you start first grade?

Anyone would know that, right? Not necessarily. An Air Force brat, I went to 10 schools before I graduated from high school. I don’t remember a thing about my school in first grade, except that it was in Germany.

The street I lived on in third grade? No clue. It was in Maryland.

Favorite color? It varies.

Favorite song? Movie?  Ditto. Ditto.

In California, the state’s insurance exchange presents 30 security questions; shoppers must  answer five, the Journal reported. Among them: “What is your significant other’s favorite color?” and “what is your youngest child’s birth weight?” And the ever popular: “What color was your first bicycle?”

These are details a machine can summon effortlessly. It’s not as easy for men and women. Life is messy. Our memories overlap, fade and reconstitute.     

Best friend? Don’t make me choose.

Please don’t misunderstand me. I want websites to do whatever they can to assure privacy. But many web-savvy people say the questions don’t stop determined hackers anyway. Sarah Palin’s email was hacked by someone who found out her birth date, ZIP code and the name of her high school – information that’s widely available on Google and Facebook.

Here’s a solution. Anyone can arbitrarily decide from today forward that he or she had Miss Raven as first grade teacher, lived on Lenore Street in third grade and rode a red bike to Edgar Allen Poe Elementary School.  Stumped by security questions? Nevermore.    

We humans just have to remember what we made up. We can make a note. On paper.

© 2013 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.

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