Importance of CAPTCHAs: Lessons from a Heart-rending Story of a Psychologist
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Importance of CAPTCHAs: Lessons from a Heart-rending Story of a Psychologist

By Mainak Biswas June 20, 2013 - 800 views

CAPTCHAs (Completely Automated Turing Tests to Tell Computers and Humans Apart) are a mechanism to detect human element in the input on websites to keep the comment boxes free from unwanted comments. A popular CAPTCHA keeps websites free from 18 million unwanted comments per day. They are crucial for the success of businesses.

Before we get into further details, I would like to share a fictitious incident with you that, let us say, made me a staunch supporter of CAPTCHAs in their endeavor to keep spammers at bay and guard your website from unscrupulous and illegal activities that can mar your image.

The blood curdling story

Not long ago, I happened to run into a long lost friend downtown whose lively talks and attitude would light up everybody’s face with a smile. We planned to catch up with each other sometime soon and reminisce nostalgic memories from the past. With this thought, we booked a table for the two of us in an up-market restaurant and left for our respective homes.

When I retired to bed the night that followed our meeting, I started to contemplate on the activities of the day and could not help thinking about this friend of mine. Wondering what could have wrought this saddening change in his attitude- from the lively person that he was to the indifferent person that he has become, I decided to probe this change from every angle possible and help him to cope with any inherent difficulties (he used to radiate an aura of friendliness before).

The date concerning the up-market restaurant that we had booked drew close and meeting along the way, after exchanging pleasantries, we huddled up to the restaurant and reclined against our chairs ordering a few drinks. During the course of sipping on our drinks, I decided to break the ice and engaged him in a conversation.

I started with the question of his job satisfaction. He ran amok at the mention of his job- he ekes out a living as a psychologist and runs an interactive forum discussing various psychological issues plaguing teenagers. He was at his wit’s end dealing with the ingenious ways and devious designs that the spammers would come up with, to target his website. All these traits are truly endemic to a diabolical mind.

His forum was always spammed with various advertisements and the spammers would mar the image and integrity of his website with malicious and sleazy content offensive to his clients. This hindered the smooth functioning of his business and put his reputation at stake, as an eminent psychologist.

I advised him not to brood over the past and mull over things that he can do to fix these problems in this age of advanced technology. Then, I convinced him to gauge the possibility of using CAPTCHAs as a savior to the plummeting number of clients that he treats to.

You cannot do without CAPTCHAs

This story highlights the seriousness of the damages caused by not using CAPTCHAs in your website. The spammers who cause this nuisance are criminals who are out of reach to even the long arm of the law. They are funded by organizations and people who want to manipulate online voting systems, let’s say to win some contests; they can also be roped in to boost search engine rankings and in other cases, to aggressively promote and push their products which have no takers.

In order to take on these spammers and thwart their attempts to bully helpless website owners like my imaginary long lost friend in the narrated story, we have to take a look at how these spammers work and delve deeper into their shady dealings in a bid to understand their psychology. As we have looked into the incentives the spammers garner by their illegal activities, we are going to probe the possibility of using CAPTCHAs in your businesses. In the section that follows, you are going to read about the CAPTCHAs available, their drawbacks, solution to these drawbacks and the best CAPTCHA suitable to your business needs.

The best CAPTCHA would be the one which incorporates these handicaps of the computer listed below:

1. A task that users are good at naturally, but computers lag behind, such as recognizing complicated visual patterns.

2. A task that users can quickly perform, but proven a daunting one for the computer

3. A task that minimizes the need for additional user input

4. A task that users with special needs such as elderly people, people with visual impairment or dyslexia and people with hearing problems can perform.

CAPTCHA with text recognition

This type of CAPTCHA is very popular among website users. It asks the user to type in a set of words which are displayed in a visual pattern by altering their font. It banks on the fact that bots won’t be able to recognize visual patterns depicted in it. This CAPTCHA fools the optical character recognition technology into interpreting it as something else.

The drawbacks of these CAPTCHAs are listed below:

1. As these CAPTCHAs use text in its letters that are almost recognizable to the users, the text displayed in them can be totally illegible and sometimes the user too won’t be able to recognize them.

2. This CAPTCHA provides audio alternatives to users with visual impairment, but this is not worthwhile as many website users are not well versed or even familiar with the English language because the internet caters to a diverse section of people who, as a matter of fact are from far flung areas of the world- the internet is dominated by 27 percent of English speaking people, followed by 25 percent of Chinese and a lot of other language users.

3. Spammers can come up with a software that can be able to recognize the image embedded in these CAPTCHAs and can employ them in their misdemeanor.

The first drawback can be overcome by providing the user with the option of another set of words on his request.

CAPTCHA with logic questions

This CAPTCHA takes into account the inability of computers to assimilate the complexity endemic to the written language. This CAPTCHA service has over 180 million questions in its database, which are tested for the intelligence of a seven-year-old.

There are a few drawbacks for this type of CAPTCHA as well:

1. These logic questions are usually in the English language, which is similar to the drawback mentioned in the text recognition CAPTCHAs. This presents a difficulty in catering to the needs of users of other languages.

2. The effort put on part of the users in answering these questions would take a large chunk out of their time- which is a prized possession. This would annoy the users and pose unnecessary difficulties for them to access the required information.

CAPTCHA with image recognition

Going by the name, this type of CAPTCHA is not friendly with visually impaired people. So, its usability is out of question.

CAPTCHA with friend recognition

This type of CAPTCHA was developed by Facebook and abandoned with no scope for usability. Its main drawback was that friends being randomly added, users won’t recognize them, as a person having 800 friends is not uncommon on this social networking site.

CAPTCHA with user interaction

This CAPTCHA lets you show your human side by interacting with you, as on a website, it asks its users to slide a cursor to the end of a line.

Drawbacks of these CAPTCHAs are

1.  It is obviously not user friendly

2.  The slider can be moved automatically with the help of a script by spammers.

CAPTCHAs suitable for your business

Use CAPTCHAs that suit your needs for a myriad of applications. Some of them are enumerated as below:

1. Don’t allow content to be directly posted to your website, instead allow it through maintained and verified account management. The best CAPTCHA that can be used in the successful implementation of this idea is Facebook Connect, the friend recognition CAPTCHA developed by facebook and is mentioned in the previous sections.

2. Keyword and mouse interactions are a great way to thwart the attempts of spammers in posting gibberish on your website, by way of detecting the human element in the input. CAPTCHAs based on user interaction work best for the implementation of this idea.

With all the drawbacks of popular CAPTCHAs listed and the best CAPTCHAs for your specific business needs discussed, you can create your perfect CAPTCHA by using the tips and tricks mentioned in this article and use it for your benefit of keeping the unwanted spammer at bay, to realize your dream of the hassle-free operation of your website and an enhanced user-experience on it.

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