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CAPTCHA – What is it?

When you see one of these squiggly words, it means the designers of the system you’re using want to determine that a real live human is interacting with it. This might happen when you’re creating a new e-mail address, commenting on your favorite blog, or accepting a Terms of Service Agreement.

Since CAPTCHA tests rely on the user’s ability to see the words in the puzzle, it can create some snags for people with vision problems and disabilities. To improve accessibility for the visually-impaired, some CAPTCHA developers implemented an audio alternative in which a robot voice would “say” the CAPTCHA word or phrase to allow the user to translate it to text.

Even when audio or visual cues fall short, there are additional options. Some developers have included mathematical equations and common sense questions that still require a human response, such as “What is 2+2?” and “What color is the sky?”

If you’ve been seeing CAPTCHA tests for a while and you’re wondering if they’re getting harder or you’re just getting older– well, both are true. Early CAPTCHA tests worked when they first came out, but then people developed computer programs that could decipher them. Thus, CAPTCHA generators had to employ more complicated tactics to tell the difference between man and machine.

So, why do people want to circumvent CAPTCHA tests with computer software?

There are two main reasons that people try to circumvent the tests:

  • To set up thousands of “fake” e-mail accounts with services like Yahoo and Gmail to use for sending spam (either for pure annoyance or for “phishing” campaigns to attempt to get personal information).
  • To post automated comments on blog posts and forum websites.

It’s easy to agree that these are two things we’d like to limit–if not eliminate–in our online experience. CAPTCHA helps to do that by preventing some attempts. It’s difficult to measure the impact that CAPTCHA has on limiting spam on the web, but it clearly stops some people (and their automated computer programs) from misusing web services.

The next time you have to decipher a fictional word or nonsense phrase that looks like it came out of a Picasso painting, remember that it’s there to protect you. They may be challenging to decipher, but they help reduce spam and other “junk” on the web so they’re worth the effort.

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