Captcha Tyranny

You would think that a mystery writer would like word puzzles. And I do, but not the kind currently being used on the internet to sort out humans from machines in the no-holds-barred war against SPAM (unwanted, unsolicited emails or messages sent in bulk by electronic means).

A Captcha is defined on Wikipedia as a “Completely Automated Public Turing Test.” What’s a Turing Test? A test to see if a computer can respond like a human. Captchas are sort of a reverse Turing Test. A computer tries to determine if it’s interacting with a human or another computer.

More and more often you will be required to answer a Captcha before posting a blog, sending an email, or even sending a “friend” request on social networking sites (MySpace, Facebook, etc.) The Captcha is a series of letters and sometimes numbers that are distorted, stacked on top of one another or otherwise obscured by background images. You are required to decipher the Captcha and type it correctly into a box underneath the image. You don’t have to worry with whether or not the letters are upper or lower case. You just have to figure out what the letters are. And it’s not that easy.

Maybe it’s just me, but I have a hard time convincing computers that I’m human. On an average it takes me four or five wrong answers, before the computer accepts my solution. The following are actual Captchas I’ve been confronted with in the last few days.

If you look at this Captcha it’s not too hard to solve. My eyes tell me it’s one of two possible strings – IMGIFM or IMGIFRN.

This second Captcha is solvable – CSSQCNE – assuming that you remember what a cursive Q looks like.

But look at the Captcha below. Is the first character an F? Or is that just a line in the Captcha to obscure the other letters? FHJTSXY maybe. Is there just one large T or two smashed together?

Okay – what’s the answer for the Captcha below? DUOHZK? Or DUDVZK or DUCLVZK or DUCHZK? Could be any of them. What a headache!

There is usually an option to ask for another Captcha to solve or a “handicap” symbol to click if you get stuck. Theoretically, if you click on the handicap symbol you are supposed to get an audible recitation of the Captcha and then you just type what you hear. I tried that a few times. Usually the audio file would not play correctly on my computer – think soft, quick mumbles of sounds. Nothing I could identify.

Sometimes I just let the computer win. Often I decide that whatever I’m trying to post or whoever’s group I’m trying to join is just not worth the effort.

Remember “Hal” from the 1968 movie “2001 – A Space Odyssey”? Hal was a computer on a space ship who took control away from the astronauts on board. Hal would love Captchas. I don’t.


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