Fear Factor

In the past year, I’ve had a lot of trouble with locking mechanisms. I have a long history of struggling to open things, and, by all accounts, this is a trend that will persist. Once, in Berlin, I was attempting to enter a sublet 1-bedroom and so noisily and clumsily failed to open the lock that an elderly neighbor nearly rang die Polizei. The earful I received instead, delivered primarily in German with splashes of English, reiterating my idiocy, was equally terrifying.

About six months later, a mere three days after moving into a new apartment, this time in Ho Chi Minh City, I accidentally locked every other tenant out of the building, only to discover my grave error after hearing shouts from within a deep sleep and peering over the balcony (never mind that it was 5:15 PM). I tried to place some donuts in the common area with a crudely translated note in Vietnamese—so sorry I accidentally locked you all out, don’t think it will happen again!—to rectify my error, but I fear this first impression forever solidified my incompetence in the eyes of everyone in my immediate vicinity. The deadbolt on the front gate’s lock was removed the next week.

Yet my greatest source of lock-related angst comes not from a set of jingling keys, but from the online world. You see, a simple tool meant to put skeptics at ease and mitigate identity theft has, in fact, caused me a great many headaches. I’m talking, of course, about two-factor authentication, or: my greatest enemy. Two-factor authentication, sometimes referred to as MFA (multi-factor authentication), is a relatively straightforward concept. In order to gain access to something, one must present two pieces of evidence. In the pre-app days of the internet, this commonly consisted of a password and a security question (What was the name of your first pet? Tiffany, and it’s a sore subject). In other cases, it’s a simple key that is held offline for things like cryptocurrency accounts.

Today, however, two-factor authentication generally manifests itself in a different form, which is providing a cell-phone number as the form of verification for apps with sensitive information, especially as far as finance is concerned. Here’s where it gets frustrating for the transient man, though. I’ve switched phone numbers three times in the past year. In fact, the only reason I even bother getting a phone number is so I can have a sim card to get LTE data. My current setup, in Vietnam, appears such that I’m not even able to receive SMS messages. So, who cares? Well, yes, I’m personally frustrated by the hoops I need to jump through to access my Paypal account, which is linked to a German phone number. And don’t get me wrong, it’s definitely my fault for opting in to SMS verification, but it’s nearly always presented as the simplest and most immediate option to sign up for something. On a wider scale, however, I find the reliance on phone numbers by supposedly forward-thinking companies to be unwise.

In 2004, more than 90% of US households had landlines. Fast forward to 2018 and that number is a mere 41.7%. Predictably, the number of personal cell phone numbers followed a similar path—5% in 2004 to 50% in 2018. I still remember the day my family, which had a prolific history of landline use, pulled the plug some time around 2015. It was empowering. I hope that we will soon be similarly unencumbered by monthly cell phone bills, be it through better city-wide wifi networks or right-to-internet legislation.

Perhaps America is stuck in the past when it comes to texting and calling. In Germany and the rest of Europe, pretty much everyone I met was communicating via Whatsapp. Likewise, in Vietnam, every ding I hear is that of Facebook Messenger. And in China, of course, WeChat dominates much of life. In short, it seems like phone number-to-phone number communication will soon be a thing of the past.

So all of this is to say, while I wait on hold with Paypal support, that app developers should consider other means by which to protect accounts. And perhaps I should stop changing phone numbers so often in the meantime.