Understanding CAPTCHAs and Why They Are Great
CAPTCHAs are annoying, but they are necessary with today’s cyber world. CAPTCHA boxes have become quite a common thing online these days, especially at secure sites with sensitive information. They have been specifically designed for one purpose: To stop robots! While you may not have been aware that robots were out there attacking everything about you, some people have found out the hard way what it is like to be hacked by a spam bot, phishing bot, or any other type of automated system created to steal and hack into your online existence.
There are times when the CAPTCHA can go too far though, and it can sometimes get very difficult to understand what you are seeing. In some cases, such as the one I recently got below, it can even seem to display multiple languages. The computer’s randomness causes us to occasionally fail the human test, and forces us to attempt to survive the madness once again. Seriously… I’m not a robot!
But how exactly does a CAPTCHA work? Why is it so important that websites implement them into their sites? For this answer, let’s look at a few facts of our digital lifestyle.
YOUR INFORMATION IS EVERYWHERE
If you’re like me, and have a big online presence, you likely have your financial and personal information spread throughout the internet. It’s easily accessible for most hackers, and other naughty online predators. Spam, Trojans, Viruses, Spyware, Keyloggers, and everything else on the internet is always circulated by people who have no idea about that security threat stuff. So what if there was a way to find and send out information to a massive amount of people using an automated system?
That’s exactly what the crooks are thinking too, and it’s created a justification for a well-thought out system to combat those bots that have been created. CAPTCHA has been the universally accepted answer thus far, and even though it’s annoying to a lot of us, it’s needed on so many levels. From massive amounts of junkmail being sent out, to credit card information leaks, to random facebook posts to your friends that clearly weren’t from you, internet predators are out there to mess with your lives. Take and do yourselves a favor: Be careful of everything, and don’t trust random people with personal information.
The entire purpose of the internet is communication. Whether that means you talking to other people (instant messaging, Skype, email, etc), You talking to other computers (online banking, buying movie tickets online, etc), or your computer talking to other computers (downloading an update from Microsoft’s servers, torrenting/mass file sharing, etc) communication online has been naturally deposited into our blood over the years. It’s with this massive movement of communication that people can look to take advantage of you fairly quickly. CAPTCHAs help combat that as well.
Let’s say, for instance, you wish to post a link on your facebook page. The link is a redirected link, such as a link that will direct whoever clicks on it to a site outside the one they are currently on, and you want to share it with your friend. In this case, a CAPTCHA pops up into your face, looking something like the one listed below here. While it may be annoying now, you have no idea just how much you’ll love that CAPTCHA tomorrow.
How you ask? Well, as it turns out, that “Random Quizzes on Facebook” app that you linked to your account is actually designed to receive your information, and use it to mass-produce links all over the web on your behalf. It posts to your friends wall the next day (as you) and tells her she really needs to check out these new risk-free vitamin supplements. Your friend clicks on this link, and now her account has been infected too. The epidemic spreads until your Home page wall is covered with Vitamin supplement offers! All this happened because a bot was able to take control of your account, and spread it’s 1′s and 0′s around to your friends. Pretty scary stuff right?
Rewind now, back to when you signed up for this Quizzes app. Your account has become infected, and you’ve just finished logging out of the localcomputer you were on. The bot quickly goes to work on your account, locating all of your friends, and attempting to post a link on your friends wall. All of the sudden, the CAPTCHA pops up, asking the bot to verify that it’s human by entering in this strange assortment of letters. Of course, the computer isn’t able to pass this test, and nothing gets posted. This entire epidemic of spam was averted because of the CAPTCHA! See, you’re warming up to it now aren’t you?
CAPTCHAs can take different shapes and sizes, and can also provide a variety of tests. Some ask the human to verify their existence by matching a word to a picture. Some require you to answer a simple math problem. Some will show you a group of letters, but ask that you identify a specific trait about them (see photos right). Whatever the case, CAPTCHAs, much like airport security, are very annoying at times, but are there to keep you safe.
Even these steps though, some people have been in the process of developing smarter bots. Software capable of detecting a CAPTCHA’s presence and passing it’s test. Simple puzzles, like some that are only a few letters, can be figured out easily with software similar to the software that can recognize your face. Others use this tactic to solve the picture puzzles (see photo right), and easily get through the test anyways. With smarter bots being built, smarter tests are being developed. Bots today are able to break some pretty tough tests. Some of the tests they’ve been successfully able to crack, with an over 60% success rate, are:
Strikethroughs (lines running through the letters in the puzzle), Colorful backgrounds (which can be completely removed by software bots), and multi-word CAPTCHAs (which can be isolated into sections and decoded one letter at a time).
The thing to take from this is simply that although CAPTCHAs can be quite annoying at times, and can even take many valuable minutes out of your life throughout the day, it is nowhere near the amount of heartache you’ll experience from cleaning up the messes that these computerized terrorists can cause if they get through them. Just like the cop that pulled you over last week, CAPTCHAs make us happy when they save us from harm, but upset when we have to face them ourselves.
For even more information about internet security and prevention using CAPTCHAs, you can visit the Wikipedia entry here.