The curious case of OTP: one-time password, all-time pestering

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We are all victims of India’s race to become a dominant force in the digital world. It is a mad, frantic rush, pushing us to develop apps before anyone else does. The more apps we create, the more they strengthen the national muscle. In fact, we are on the brink of becoming a robust nation, wielding the power to execute the swiftest clicks imaginable.

The driving force behind this need for speed is the digital innovation called One-Time Password (OTP). On any given day, an Indian with a smartphone may have to enter OTPs up to 25 times and send them within 10 seconds. A mere second’s delay and all will be lost.

Digital jail and bot alerts

If a man knocks at your door, dressed up like a marine conducting a house-to-house search during the Afghan war, and screams, “WoteePEE,” then don’t run to the bathroom. What he is looking for is just a number that would have appeared magically on your phone because you ordered a lithium battery two weeks ago. If you have no OTP on your phone, you will be threatened, blackmailed, and asked to submit all your personal details as a security measure if you want your lithium battery you already paid for.

Having claimed your battery, you will have to charge it up yourself because there are other OTPs on the way. If you want to transfer money, your bank will demand that you renew your KYC (Know Your Customer), a well-known Indian governmental jargon which is short for the government to harass you and access your personal records. To do that, first, your bank will send you an OTP.

Once you send that through a complex operation of copying, pasting, and repasting, you are dumped in an interrogation cell, facing various questions, one of which is whether your Aadhaar card is linked to your phone. If you don’t know that, you are in (digital) jail. Nothing will move, and your life will feel doomed. In case you have sent the OTP, here comes another one for confirming that you indeed have a proper Aadhaar number linked to your phone. But God bless if you paste the wrong OTP; you are in jail again. You have to visit the bank, provide affidavits, and convince the stern officer, wearing a tie, that the money in your account is actually yours.

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In case nothing like this happens, you might receive a call (especially if you have an ICICI bank account) at midnight from a bot with an American accent, warning you that your KYC has been renewed with a change of address and asking if you did it yourself. It’s a bizarre warning from a bot that will also inquire to verify if you are human (a type of existence considered worse than a bot).

The CAPTCHA conundrum

If there is a checkbox to verify if you are a human, there is also a checkbox to confirm if you are a bot. “Check here if you are not a bot,” the computer will demand of you. If you forget to do it, then you are once again slammed into a digital jail, from where you cannot extricate yourself, and the money you paid has disappeared into some crypto account in the Caveman Islands by the time you say ‘hallelujah’.

By now, 500 million Indians have become experts in dealing with OTPs. If you think you have achieved the impossible, then wait. If you are buying anything from a government website, then even after the successful submission of two OTPs (one from the site, one from your bank), you still find yourself facing the door to hell. Because even though you are in a rush to buy a ticket from IRCTC to catch the evening train to attend a wedding, up pops a column that screams in delight: CAPTCHA (Indian version of the American GOTCHA)! No Indian tax-paying citizen can be blamed for thinking that he or she has finally been captured by the ED (Enforcement Directorate), which is always on the lookout for people who book train tickets to places near the border with Pakistan.

Well, while you are scratching your head in dismay and breathlessness, here appear alphabets and figures that you haven’t seen before, even though you have a doctorate from Oxford on “The Socio-Political Reality of the Oriental Rope Trick.” These are actually alphabets printed upside down or slanted to 325 degrees, making it impossible to decipher unless you are trained in Large Language Models (LLMs).

After 25 tries at deciphering the CAPTCHA, the screen informs you that your session has expired. Shocked and angry, you rush out to catch the bus. But it is difficult to find a bus where the conductor does not scream “WotteePEE” as soon as you enter. If you don’t find it on your phone, then you are ordered out with the conductor shouting, “My way or the Highway,” as you sit on the tarmac of the sprawling new Noida-Agra highway.

Adventures and absurdities

If you survive all this, you will surely need many bottles of energy drinks. So, you order one from a 10-minute delivery app. Even before you can put your feet up, the bell rings, and the man, panting like a marathon runner who has lost his way, shouts ‘WoteePee’ even as you open the door. God forbid if, like me, you say, “I got no OTP”.  The delivery boy, dressed as if he escaped from the sets of Mission Impossible, in a multi layered helmet designed to outlast an atom bomb, turns and runs, shouting that he has another delivery in one minute and can’t wait. “Then please drink some of that energy drink,” I shout. Chastened, he returns running, this time with his helmet and mask removed, and gives me the bottles.

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“Is your company a unicorn?,” I ask, wondering at the speed with which he delivers. He doesn’t understand the term; poor man, who does not know that he works for a billion-dollar company but is still gasping for breath. “Our bosses are happy because we had a good performance, with only a Rs 100 crore loss this quarter and so they are sure of more funding.”

By this time, an OTP flashes on my screen. “1058,” I shout after him. But he has vanished. I slump on my doorstep. In one second, the ICICI bot calls, sounding like a human and warns me that Rs 65 has been deducted from my account. “If you are not a bot, send the OTP,” the bot signs off.

(Binoo K John is the author, among other books, of the recently published Top Game: Winning, Losing and a New Understanding of Sport (Speaking Tiger))

(The Federal seeks to present views and opinions from all sides of the spectrum. The information, ideas or opinions in the articles are of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Federal)

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