11 May 2010

What's the Password, Kenneth?

For years, I've been predicting that the Army was going to make computer networks so secure that regular soldiers would ultimately find the system completely unusable. Given my experience last week, when I was trying to request yet another user account for yet another military system--which required the creation of yet another 15-character-and-don't-use-any-dictionary-words-but-make-sure-to-include-two-special-characters password--I feared that our New Robot Overlords had finally succeeded.

In requesting my new account and password, I had to prove my identity by entering certain dates. Birth date? Check. Date of marriage? Check. What was the exact first day I wore the Army uniform? Uhhhhh ... let me get back you on that one.

Lucky for me, I could log into my personal records on the Army pay system, the repository for non-trivial trivia such as the answer to the "first day you wore the uniform question."

Apparently, however, I couldn't remember my user name or password for that pay system website. A couple of failed attempts, and the website automatically locked me out. A message on the screen told me to call a toll-free help line. Seven layers of phone menus later, and I'm finally talking to a real person.

She cannot tell me my user name, she tells me, but she can give me hints. No, not pre-established security questions. Just hints. Start guessing.

You have GOT to be kidding me: Uncle Sam reduced me to guessing my own name.

This is actually harder than it sounds. Because I have such a common name, the Army likes to add random numbers to my user names. Depending on the system, I am "Charlie.Sherpa20," "Charlie.M.Sherpa4," and "Charles.Sherpa6." On one new system, I log in as "Charlie.Sherpa20," in order to receive e-mail as "Charlie.Sherpa18." No, I am not making this up. Who I am depends on which computer I am trying to talk to.

After a couple of tries, I finally guess right. It turns out that I HAD been using the correct password, but the system now requires the user name to be in all-capital letters. When I hear this, I try to remain calm. Before the password-lockout, the phone menus, the guess-my-own-user-name game, I tell her, there was absolutely NOTHING on the screen indicating that my user name had to be in all-caps. I respectfully request that this observation be noted, and forwarded to whomever is responsible for customer service.

Yeah, like there's a Robot Overlord for THAT ...

Back when I was still running telephone wire in the Army, I once had the opportunity to tell a roomful of officers: "If your phone doesn't work, give me a call." I got out of there before they realized what I'd said.

Techno-karma that goes around comes around, however. Years later, my civilian employer's Information Technology (I.T.) "help desk" personnel--they label themselves the "call center"--stopped publishing their phone number.

I say again: The so-called "call center" stopped ... listing ... its phone number.

Does ... not ... compute.

Instead, they wanted people to log into their internal website, and create some sort of "ticket." OK, Mr. Call Center, what happens if my problem is that I can't log into my computer? They didn't have a good answer for that. Or rather, they wouldn't have had an answer, had anyone been able to contact them.

I wish I could say that such madness was limited to the civilian world--or, at least, the world of services-outsourced-to-civilian-contractor-robots. Just last year, however, I attended a meeting of both U.S. military and civilian governmental representatives, who were working on ways to cooperate during natural and man-made disasters--floods, hurricanes, earthquakes, oil spills, that sort of thing. When the civilians complained that they couldn't access a particular military website, an Air Force communications officer actually stood up and told people that, if they had log-in problems, the trouble-shooting guide was located on the website.

That's right: You first had to log-in to the website, in order to learn how to log in.

Open the web-portal, HAL.


  1. I'm sorry Dave I can't do that

  2. I know that you and Frank were planning to disconnect me, and I'm afraid that's something I cannot allow to happen.

  3. I like the REM reference in the title... What IS the frequency Kenneth!?! Poor Dan Rather... PDV

  4. When I called the "AKO" help desk last time and explained I needed to reset my password, because I'm a weekend warrior and I don't have a CAC reader and the ones at the armrory are not working...he said: "Oh, I don't think they thought about the National Guard and Reserves when they made it so complicated."

    no kidding. But no fear...when I retire everybody who e-mails my AKO will get a "Gone fishing" message and I'll never use that crap again.

  5. @ CI-Roller Dude: I recently e-mailed someone who's deploying downrange, and got an "out-of-office" message that said something like, "I will be returning to the office sometime after November 2011." I'll have to suggest to him that a "gone hunting" sign might be more appropriate, given where he's headed ...

    @ Everyone else: The fact that y'all get both science-fiction movie lines and obscure pop lyric references is both affirming ... and intimidating. I'm going to have to step up my geekitude!

  6. Unleash the inner geek... PDV


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