Technology can be a bit strange sometimes. One example? Those temporary passwords companies generate, which are almost always a jumbled mess of letters, numbers, and punctuation marks. There may be a word in there, but a meaningless and laughable one. Well, most of the time.
On Monday, Erica Conway of Renton, Washington, got a temporary password that was anything but laughable.
She went to the Puget Sound Energy website to submit a payment but she’d forgotten her password. She requested a temporary password to log in and the password, which was generated at random by a third-party, was “NiggaHHJ.”
Conway, a black woman, believes the password wasn’t random at all:
I was truly in disbelief. Because this is not normal, and this is not what a temporary password is supposed to say.
She called the customer service line for the utility company to complain, and asked an agent if they screened for offensive words, such as a racial slur. The agent told her that yes, they do. So she asked if they screened for this word specifically.
And the agent’s response?
No, why would we?
Conway was fuming. She said of the exchange:
‘We’re in 2018. You mean to tell me you’ve never heard this word before?’ And she said, ‘Yeah, in the movies by African-Americans.’ And I said, ‘I think we need to stop this conversation.’
Twitter agreed, insisting the password couldn’t have been a random coincidence:
Hmm.. Now what are the odds that a computer randomly generated said password? And if it did, would it be right for the Admin to check what was generated & request a redo?
Just thinking out loud..
— El-Timi (@ElTimi100) August 2, 2018
Random, you say? pic.twitter.com/zWLdoHSUhL
— Strong_A_Arm (@AshleyMArmstro1) August 2, 2018
I have troubling buying that excuse from the company. Random passwords are a bunch of letters and numbers in no particular pattern. They never group letters together to have anything that even looks like a word of any kind.
— Sharon (@sapw) August 2, 2018
A PSE spokesperson, Janet Kim, explained that the automatically generated passwords are sent right from the system to the customers, meaning no employees could go in and change things.
But Kim does recognize that the password in this situation was disturbing:
This was offensive. There was no question about that. We apologize to this customer, the community, for what has happened, and we are trying to do what we can to make it right.
Conway expressed her shock after the incident:
It was like an emotional roller coaster. Shock, disbelief, disgusted, angry. It was just — yeah, even now I’m just kind of like, I cannot believe this.
She has been a constant volunteer for the Seattle Chapter of the NAACP.
The company has made adjustments to the system so customers won’t receive any inappropriate, racially (or otherwise) insensitive passwords in the future.
And the customer service agent who spoke with Conway? She is being re-trained so she can avoid ignorant conversations with customers.