An issue over a temporary password is leading a Washington state utility company to make permanent changes.
Erica Conway of Renton said that she logged onto the Puget Sound Energy website on Monday to pay her bill online and that when she forgot her password, she clicked a button to generate a temporary one so she could access her account.
The password, sent by third-party software, was supposed to be a randomly generated combination of letters and numbers.
Conway’s temp password was “NiggaHHJ,” and as a black woman, she said she thinks it was anything but random.
“I was truly in disbelief. Because this is not normal, and this is not what a temporary password is supposed to say,” she told local station KIRO-TV.
Conway, a longtime volunteer for the Seattle chapter of the NAACP, said she is still reeling from 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. I just can’t believe it,” she said.
Conway said she also couldn’t believe the reaction of the utility’s customer service department when she called to complain about the racially insensitive password.
“I said, ‘Do you not screen for offensive words?’ And [the customer service agent] said, ‘Yeah, we do,’” she told local station KING-TV. “I said, ‘Do you screen for this word?’ And she said, ‘No, why would we?’”
Conway said she became frustrated when the employee didn’t seem to take her concerns seriously.
“‘We’re in 2018. You mean to tell me you’ve never heard this word before?’” she said. “And she said, ‘Yeah, in the movies by African-Americans.’ And I said, ‘I think we need to stop this conversation.’”
PSE spokeswoman Janet Kim told KIRO TV that the site’s automatically generated passwords go straight from the system to customers, “so it’s not able to be accessed by an employee.”
Still, she said, the company recognizes that the randomly selected password sent to Conway was definitely inappropriate.
“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,” Kim said.
Since the incident, the utility company has set some parameters for the password system to eliminate the chance that any offensive words are randomly generated in the future.
In addition, Kim told KING-TV, the customer service agent who spoke with Conway will undergo training to improve future interactions with customers.
But Conway said she wants the utility company to sit down with the members of the Seattle NAACP to see how what happened to her can be prevented.
“I’d really like to sit down with them. I really would. I feel like something has to be done,” she told KING-TV.