When hackers broke into Mat Honan's Apple account late last week, they couldn't answer the security questions designed to verify his identity. No matter, Apple issued them a temporary password anyway, setting off a chain of hacks that laid waste to Honan's digital life.
The security-question failure is just one in a series of flaws that made the attack possible, but this one stands out. What's the deal, Apple? This wasn't a mismatch between two different companies' systems, or the result of Honan's lackadaisical approach to passwords; this was a company disregarding its own measure, saying, effectively, these questions are a joke. We don't take them very seriously.
Why Apple didn't require the hackers to answer those questions is unclear. But even if they had, it's very likely that the hackers would have been able to find the right answers (depending, of course, on the particularities of Honan's questions and answers). The answers to the most common security questions -- where did you go to high school? what is the name of the first street you lived on? -- are often a matter of the public record, even more easily so today than in the 1980s when security questions evolved as a means of protecting bank accounts. A 2009 study from Microsoft Research found that acquaintances could answer such security questions 17 percent of the time, and strangers didn't fare too much worse, answering correctly within five tries 13 percent of the time, though that high figure may have been the result of a homogeneous sample.