Who would cross the Bridge of Death? Answer me these questions three! Oh and you'll need two-factor authentication

I'm not the robot, pal, you are


Something for the Weekend, Sir? I have failed the Turing test – again. Apparently I am unable to exhibit intelligent behaviour equivalent to that of a human being.

I am trying to sign into some services I set up ages ago but the Login Lords are having none of it. Quite possibly they are punishing me for having the temerity to disable two-factor authentication, triggering a Spitefulness subroutine which requires them to express their consequential existential crisis by taking it out on me. You're not who you claim to be, they whisper. We think you're lying.

Great. It's 4:00am and I'm being dissed by uppity electrons 6,000 miles away.

So I'm a liar. What's new? Much of what I write in this column is made up. But then… if that's true, what I just said might be untrue.* Ho ho, it's one of those entertaining conundrums! I must write a LinkedIn post about it to demonstrate what an insightful smartarse I am.

I only disabled 2FA because it was texting validation codes to a mobile phone number I haven't owned in years. No standard alternative was offered: no authentication app, no email check, no password reminder prompts, nothing. All I was allowed to do was log a support request and wait 72 hours.

Apparently, me asking to disable my 2FA marks me down as such a drastic security risk that the only way I can do it is by emailing my request to a faceless minion at a generic support address along with a scan of my passport as a file attachment.

It occurs to me that this is akin to dropping my trousers in the middle of a crowd, bending over and shouting: "Could a qualified person please check that my arse is secure?" But naturally I comply. I wouldn't want to represent a security risk to the company running those online services, would I?

Looking at the problem from the company's point of view, I could be anybody. I could be trying to circumvent my own login by only pretending to be me. Some people are good at imitation. This guy, for example…

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I am not so good at this sort of thing. I am so bad at it that I can't even impersonate myself adequately.

This is made plain to me three days later, shortly after receiving the notification that 2FA has been removed from my account. Still suspicious of my motives, the Artificially Intelligent Angels of Authentication have inserted a CAPTCHA into my new sign-in procedure.

Buggeration.

It begins harmlessly enough with a tick option. Just as daleks can't climb stairs and 1960s self-aware computers hell-bent on world domination can't answer the question "Why?" without spontaneously combusting, it seems that robots don't know how to tick.

Screenshot of CAPTCHA tick-only dialog in French

Don't click on me. I am not a robot. I'm a screenshot

Evidently, neither do I. The Californian robot that is evaluating whether I am also a robot is unconvinced by my ticking. It is now asking me to click on impossibly indistinct photos that might contain pedestrian crossings. This suggests that robots must have a tendency to step off the pavement without looking. I make a note to contact Boston Dynamics and claim my bug-finder's fee.

The CAPTCHA doesn't like my photo selections. It appears I'm not very good at recognising the flaky splatterings of ground paint that indicate where pedestrians are supposed to cross the dirt-caked, crumbling, potholed bitumen that Americans call "roads". So CAPTCHA loads up another set of photos and asks me to click on bits that contain traffic lights. No luck. Then it asks me to click on road signs. Then motorcycles.

From these tests, I am led to believe that robots don't know what roads, traffic lights, road signs, or road vehicles look like. Good job nobody in their right mind expects a robot to drive their car for them or we'd be in real trouble.

It's now asking me to click on pickup trucks. Then it's chimneys. Burger stands. Apple pies. Corn dogs. Hmm, no wonder I'm getting them wrong: these images seem to be culturally particular to north America. It may as well show me photos of school playgrounds and ask me to click on all the squares containing semi-automatic weapons.

I'm with this guy on the pros and cons of CAPTCHA. The UX friction doesn't bother me – it's a type of gamification and that's all the rage I hear – so much as the uniform cultural assumptions made by those asking the questions. It's like when I see this kind of thing…

Screenshot from LinkedIn of photo showing colour-coded wristbands to indicate the post-covid distancing preferences of co-workers

I don't care if you're double vaccinated, just stay away from me

… I can't help imagining what it's like if you are colour blind. For example, someone suffering from protanopia is likely to see things a bit like this:

Screenshot of how a protanopia-type colourblind person might see the previous photo.

Hug, marry, avoid. It's all in the wrist… if you can see the difference

On a whim I switch CAPTCHA to audio mode and somehow eventually trick the bastard into letting me in. Except, of course, it shouldn't really count as a trick to be allowed in to your own login, should it?

By now, I expect my 2FA cancellation and subsequent difficulties in signing in have put me in the crosshairs of security services worldwide. The Keychain Kings will have started gossiping among themselves, I'm sure, and soon enough I will be locked out of everything until I send my fingerprint and DNA records via open email to support@supportymcsupportface.net.

When Alan thought up his AI variant of the "imitation" parlour game, he imagined humans would try to determine whether they were conversing with a robot. Somehow we have stumbled into a dystopia in which robots are allowed to determine whether or not we are human.

I'm not very good at imitating one of those.

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Alistair Dabbs
Alistair Dabbs is a freelance technology tart, juggling tech journalism, training and digital publishing. More at Autosave is for Wimps and @alidabbs. He promises he will get around to writing new stories for 'Wimps' just as soon as he overrides the password block. And can be arsed.

*Rest assured, dear reader, everything is this column is the gospel Liber AL truth, as Thoth is my witness. Everything is permitted. Call me Aleister.


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