a compendium of tech stuff

Jul 12, 2009

On 11:01 AM by Lalith Varun   No comments



A CAPTCHA is a program that can generate and grade tests that humans can pass but current computer programs cannot. For example, humans can read distorted text as the one shown above, but current computer programs can't.

The term CAPTCHA (for Completely Automated Public Turing Test To Tell Computers and Humans Apart) was coined in 2000 by Luis von Ahn, Manuel Blum, Nicholas Hopper and John Langford of Carnegie Mellon University. At the time, they developed the first CAPTCHA to be used by Yahoo. They're also known as a type of Human Interaction Proof (HIP).

Why would anyone need to create a test that can tell humans and computers apart? It's because of people trying to game the system -- they want to exploit weaknesses in the computers running the site. While these individuals probably make up a minority of all the people on the service might find itself bombarded by account requests from an automated program. That automated program could be part of a larger attempt to send out spam mail to millions of people. The CAPTCHA test helps identify which users are real human beings and which ones are computer programs.

Applications of CAPTCHAs

CAPTCHAs have several applications for practical security, including
  • Preventing Comment Spam in Blogs. Most bloggers are familiar with programs that submit bogus comments, usually for the purpose of raising search engine ranks of some website (e.g., "buy penny stocks here"). This is called comment spam. By using a CAPTCHA, only humans can enter comments on a blog. There is no need to make users sign up before they enter a comment, and no legitimate comments are ever lost!
  • Online Polls. In November 1999, http://www.slashdot.org released an online poll asking which was the best graduate school in computer science (a dangerous question to ask over the web!). As is the case with most online polls, IP addresses of voters were recorded in order to prevent single users from voting more than once. However, students at Carnegie Mellon found a way to stuff the ballots using programs that voted for CMU thousands of times. CMU's score started growing rapidly. The next day, students at MIT wrote their own program and the poll became a contest between voting "bots." MIT finished with 21,156 votes, Carnegie Mellon with 21,032 and every other school with less than 1,000. Can the result of any online poll be trusted? Not unless the poll ensures that only humans can vote.
  • Worms and Spam. CAPTCHAs also offer a plausible solution against email worms and spam: "I will only accept an email if I know there is a human behind the other computer." A few companies are already marketing this idea.
People who maintain Web sites or create online polls need to be aware that several CAPTCHA systems are no longer effective. It's important to do a little research on which CAPTCHA applications are still reliable. And it's equally important to keep up to date on the subject. If one CAPTCHA system fails, the administrator might need to remove the code from his or her site and replace it with another version.
As for CAPTCHA designers, they have to walk a fine line. As computers become more sophisticated, the testing method must also evolve. But if the test evolves to the point where humans can no longer solve a CAPTCHA with a decent success rate, the system as a whole fails. The answer may not involve warping or distorting text -- it might require users to solve a mathematical equation or answer questions about a short story. And as these tests get more complicated, there's a risk of losing user interest. How many people will still want to post a reply to a message board if they must first solve a quadratic equation?

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