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Issue #531: September 24–30, 2017

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Q: I was surfing the web with my 7 year old grandson recently, and one of the sites we visited showed a control that said “I am not a robot” and made me check a box before it would let me continue.  My grandson thought this was a hoot, and asked me why it thought I might be a robot.  I didn’t really have an answer for him.  So, can you please help me explain why some websites think I might be a robot?

– Seth B.
Crestview, Florida

A:  What a charming little story, Seth.  I have to say, it’s so perfect for the column that it almost sounds made-up.  I think you’ll find that once you understand what is going on and why, that it will be a perfect teachable moment for you and your grandson.

What you encountered is called a CAPTCHA, which is an overly-engineered acronym that stands for Completely Automated Public Turing test to tell Computers and Humans Apart.  I briefly addressed these way back in 2013 (I.G.T.M. Issue #299, April 14, 2013) while answering a question about the CAPTCHA that I use on my own website.

The “Turing” in the acronym refers to Alan Turing, who was, among other things, a computer scientist and mathematician, and who worked to develop tests to gauge a machine’s ability to demonstrate behavior that is equivalent to, or indistinguishable from a human being.  In the case of the CAPTCHA it is designed to prove that the test taker is not a computer, rather than the other way around.

There are a millions of sites online that provide free, or low-cost services.  There are countless more hundreds of millions of people seeking to exploit those services for their own personal gain.  These people aren’t happy to just use the services, like you or I would be.  Instead, they want to abuse them for all sorts of nefarious purposes from spreading SPAM to launching virus attacks.  One of the best ways to accomplish this is through the use of automated robot programs, commonly called “bots”, that are capable of navigating websites, looking for web forms that have services they can exploit.  The purpose of a CAPTCHA is to throw them a curve ball by presenting a problem that they cannot solve.  Older CAPTCHAs displayed highly distorted text that would be difficult or impossible for a computer to decipher, but relatively easy for a human.  The test required you to type-in the text before allowing you to proceed.  More modern CAPTCHAs have simplified this process to a simple box check.  Easy for a human operating a mouse and keyboard, but more difficult for a bot attempting to navigate pages electronically.  The text “I am not a robot” is a semi-cute way of letting you know the system is trying to filter-out bots.  It’s not making any judgements on whether you are, or are not a robot until you pass or fail the test. 

It may interest you to know that one of the main reasons the old distorted text CAPTCHAs were improved upon was that advances in artificial intelligence made it possible for computers to read even the most highly distorted text with an accuracy of 99.8%.  The new CAPTCHA (actually called reCAPTCHA) uses a combination of factors, including the web site you just came from, where your mouse was on the screen, how long it took to move to the button, how steady it was, and other factors.  If you act, move, and respond like a robot, you won’t be allowed in.  But if you are a legitimate human user, you will be recognized as such, and let right on through.

So, the next time a site asks if you’re a robot, don’t take it personally.  Just relax, click, and confidently declare your non-robotness, while knowing that this test is actually protecting you – and the site’s content – from being exploited.  This helps to keep free content free, reduce SPAM, and lower the chances of spreading malware. 

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