Cloudflare wants to end CAPTCHA 'madness' that costs humanity 500 years per day

Loss of productivity is not the only cost of the internet pop-up puzzles known as CAPTCHAs.
Loss of productivity is not the only cost of the internet pop-up puzzles Photo credit: Getty Images

CAPTCHAs are a form of "madness" that costs humanity 500 years per day and need to be confined to the internet's trash bin, says online security company Cloudflare.

They're a familiar sight on the internet - you've searched your memory for the username and password of the website you're trying to access, hit the login button - only to be met by an annoying picture puzzle.

Can you select all the squares with pedestrian crossings in them? Are there any trees in the photographs? Or fire hydrants?

CAPTCHAs are automated tests designed to identify whether you are human or bot and strengthen the security of websites - but that comes at a cost, says Cloudflare.

The first CAPTCHA was developed in 1997 before the name came later, in 2003, as an acronym for 'Completely Automated Public Turing test to tell Computers and Humans Apart'. 

In a blog posted on the Cloudflare's website research engineer Thibault Meunier did a quick calculation based on its data suggesting an average user takes 32 seconds to complete a CAPTCHA.

With 4.6 billion global internet users and an assumption the average user sees one CAPTCHA per 10 days, that equates to around 500 years wasted every day trying to prove we're not bots.

But loss of productivity is not the only issue with the pop-up puzzles.

There are cultural and accessibility issues - does everyone know what a fire hydrant is? What about internet users who are sight challenged? Then there is the data and battery usage for those reliant on mobile data. That all adds up to make it a less-than-ideal means of humanity identification.

So Cloudflare is running an experiment to "end the madness", it says.

"The idea is rather simple: a real human should be able to touch or look at their device to prove they are human, without revealing their identity," Meunier wrote.

"We want you to be able to prove that you are human without revealing which human you are! You may ask if this is even possible? And the answer is: Yes."

That system will involve a hardware security key that can be plugged into a computer or connected to a mobile phone which is then verified - taking around five seconds to complete.

The test is currently limited to certain types of hardware security keys and in English-speaking regions - but should it be successful, it could mean no more unnecessary clicking.

It's all about building a better internet, says Cloudflare, adding: "We're excited to bring about the demise of the fire hydrant on the Internet. It's no longer needed."