CAPTCHA: Telling Humans and Computers Apart Automatically

Thursday, March 06, 2008

A CAPTCHA is a program that protects websites against bots by generating and grading tests that humans can pass but current computer programs cannot.

A CAPTCHA is a type of challenge-response test used in computing to determine whether the user is human. The process involves one computer (a server) asking a user to complete a simple test which the computer is able to generate and grade. Because other computers are unable to solve the CAPTCHA, any user entering a correct solution is presumed to be human. A common type of CAPTCHA requires that the user type the letters of a distorted image, sometimes with the addition of an obscured sequence of letters or digits that appears on the screen.

The term "CAPTCHA" was coined in 2000 by Luis von Ahn, Manuel Blum, Nicholas J. Hopper (all of Carnegie Mellon University), and John Langford (then of IBM). It is a contrived acronym for "Completely Automated Public Turing test to tell Computers and Humans Apart", trademarked by Carnegie Mellon University.

A CAPTCHA is sometimes described as a reverse Turing test, because it is administered by a machine and targeted to a human, in contrast to the standard Turing test that is typically administered by a human and targeted to a machine.

For example, humans can read distorted text as the one shown below, but current computer programs can't:





Applications of CAPTCHAs

CAPTCHAs have several applications for practical security, including (but not limited to):

  • 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!

  • Protecting Website Registration. Several companies (Yahoo!, Microsoft, etc.) offer free email services. Up until a few years ago, most of these services suffered from a specific type of attack: "bots" that would sign up for thousands of email accounts every minute. The solution to this problem was to use CAPTCHAs to ensure that only humans obtain free accounts. In general, free services should be protected with a CAPTCHA in order to prevent abuse by automated scripts.

  • Protecting Email Addresses From Scrapers. Spammers crawl the Web in search of email addresses posted in clear text. CAPTCHAs provide an effective mechanism to hide your email address from Web scrapers. The idea is to require users to solve a CAPTCHA before showing your email address. A free and secure implementation that uses CAPTCHAs to obfuscate an email address can be found at reCAPTCHA MailHide.

  • Online Polls. In November 1999, 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.

  • Preventing Dictionary Attacks. CAPTCHAs can also be used to prevent dictionary attacks in password systems. The idea is simple: prevent a computer from being able to iterate through the entire space of passwords by requiring it to solve a CAPTCHA after a certain number of unsuccessful logins. This is better than the classic approach of locking an account after a sequence of unsuccessful logins, since doing so allows an attacker to lock accounts at will.

  • Search Engine Bots. It is sometimes desirable to keep webpages unindexed to prevent others from finding them easily. There is an html tag to prevent search engine bots from reading web pages. The tag, however, doesn't guarantee that bots won't read a web page; it only serves to say "no bots, please." Search engine bots, since they usually belong to large companies, respect web pages that don't want to allow them in. However, in order to truly guarantee that bots won't enter a web site, CAPTCHAs are needed.

  • 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.

Further readings..
The Official CAPTCHA site



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