Waspish Wednesday…Works? CAPTCHA News

A few weeks ago, I did a Waspish Wednesday post about CAPTCHA, otherwise known as “word verification” or “image verification,” which is a “feature” on many blogs and other online sites wherein the user has to type in a distorted set of letters and/or numbers in order to be able to post, comment, enter the contest, pass through the wall of flame without being consumed, etc.

Here are two examples of CAPTCHAs:

Most CAPTCHAs started out like this, only much less legible.

Now they usually look a little better, like this, but less legible.

CAPTCHA is extremely problematic for many people with a range of disabilities, including — but not limited to — blindness, low-vision, deaf-blindness, learning disabilities, cognitive impairments, visual or auditory processing issues, neurological disabilities, and fine-motor/coordination issues.

I wrote the post to raise awareness of this issue for other bloggers, asking them to remove CAPTCHA from their blog’s comment verification. I do know at least one person removed their CAPTCHA. Yay!

A few days after that post appeared, I got a comment from someone who seemed to be promoting his CAPTCHA-beating software. I deleted it as spam.

But he was persistent. A few days later, he used the “Contact Sharon” form and wrote to me personally. He offered me a trial year of his software free. I knew right away that I didn’t want to take him up on his offer because new software scares me; it always seems to make something new go wrong. Also, I believed that other people had greater need of his offer than I do.

I thought about asking if one of my readers could receive this offer instead, but I felt mixed about it. From an ethical perspective, I don’t believe that individuals purchasing software to get around CAPTCHAs is the answer, because that means that only people who can afford/access this software get around CAPTCHAs which are, by their nature, discriminatory. It’s an individual solution, not a systemic solution.

On the other hand, from a practical standpoint, if something exists that can make this inaccessible internet world more accessible to some people with disabilities, we/they ought to have the choice to try it, or at least to know about it.

So, I wrote back to him. Here’s what happened:

Mateusz Markowski (who I don’t know at all and had never contacted me before), wrote to me saying that he read my post about how CAPTCHA is inaccessible to people with certain disabilities, and . . .

[T]hus I’m writing to you, since I’m a developer of a new Firefox add-on called Captcha Monster which automatically handles completing CAPTCHA tests. Users don’t have to even think of CAPTCHAs, since the plugin will find the image, read it and put the correct text in the right field. No interaction is required.

The add-on currently works only with Firefox web browser, but is capable of learning new CAPTCHA tests and currently solves them on most of the websites. The time of solving is less than 9 seconds for each image.

If you’re interested in this add-on, please visit its website http://captchamonster.com and feel free to contact me with any questions. If you decide to mention or review the add-on on your blog, I’ll be happy to offer you a free one-year subscription to the add-on!

I wrote back and said:

I’m not personally interested in trying out this software, but if you’re game, I will see if one (or more) of my readers is — with some strings attached (see below).

I have many readers who have disabilities that prevent them using CAPTCHA. Some of them are blind or low-vision, others, like me, have neurological issues or other physical disabilities that make CAPTCHA a problem. Then they could beta-test it for a year.

If you want, I could offer it to several readers to test it, and then you could get feedback on whether it is truly usable, friendly, and accessible to a range of people who have problems with CAPTCHA.

My agreement with you would be that after the test period is over, the person/people who used it would provide feedback on how effective (usable, accessible, and friendly) they found the software, which would not only go to you, but to me, and I would post those responses/results. If you wanted to respond with whether or how you could fix any problems the users/testers found, I would probably publish that, too unless I found something ethically repugnant in it).

The reason I said I wanted the option of posting the feedback from the beta-tester(s) is that if the software is NOT helpful or accessible, I don’t want people to read this here blog and think it is and be misled. On the other hand, if it is helpful, that could be useful for people who want the option of buying a plugin to make CAPTCHA less onerous.

Here is Mateusz’s reply:

The agreement sounds promising to me, since the feedback from users is really a desirable thing for a developer. I will appreciate all the suggestions and will do my best to make the add-on more useful and accessible.

I have created a test account for the people who would be eager to test the Captcha Monster. The account will be active for one year and there is no limit of users who could is it at the same time. However, I will ask you not to share the credentials publicly, but only to people who are interested in testing, since the account could be abused.

E-mail (login): XXXX

Password: XXXX

If any of people who you ask for a feedback stumbles upon any technical difficulties, I am always ready to help!

Best regards,

Mateusz Markowski mateusz@captchamonster.com

So, that’s the deal, folks. If you want to try Captcha Monster (I have to admit, it’s a cute name), use my Contact Sharon page to send me a note, and I will hook you up with the super-secret email and password (ooh). Then, try it out for a year. And if you have any problems during that time, email Mateusz, and tell him what is or isn’t working, and he will try to fix it.

I’m hoping this will be a win-win-win for all involved: Mateusz gets valuable feedback on his product, and a bunch of people maybe can get around the internet easier by using this software, and perhaps — if Captcha Monster catches on — it will make CAPTCHA useless enough that websites will stop using it, which would be great for everyone!

Before I close, my disclaimer: I have no personal investment in, nor do I gain anything from, this product. I know nothing about it other than what I’ve posted here.

If you have a problem or question regarding Captcha Monster, please contact Mateusz, not me! I hope this is useful!

– Sharon, the muse of Gadget, and Barnum (She’s making clicky-clacky noises on that black thing while she looks at the glowing box again. Sigh.)

P.S. Some warnings and notes from readers since this was originally posted: 1. Captcha Monster can only be used with Firefox, so if your screenreader is not compatible with Firefox, this won’t be of use. 2. Be aware that this is an untested software, so you are taking a risk in beta-testing it. 3. This note courtesy of Vomit Comet (thanks, guys!), “Warn everyone wanting to test this thing, do not update to ff5 yet. It is considered incompatible.”

P.P.S. To reiterate: This is not a systemic solution for an access problem, because only some people can use this product, so it may only help some people. If some people have to pay for access, that is not real access. The real solution is to eliminate all CAPTCHAs on the web. I hope everyone will continue to eliminate CAPTCHAs wherever they have the ability, and to complain about them elsewhere, to make the web more truly accessible.

5 Responses to “Waspish Wednesday…Works? CAPTCHA News”

  1. 1 Cyndy Otty June 22, 2011 at 9:46 pm

    I don’t think WP.com would have an issue with you posting the information here. Their policy, as I understand it, has more to do with things like affiliate links and the like. But there are tons of business blogs hosted here. Anyway, not really the point.

    I’m intrigued. But I’m wary. Captchas are really the worst successful form of securing a comment form there is because there is software already written that can beat them, so as a spam tool they’re almost pointless. (And there are so many other great spam blockers.) In the end, I think the only thing they do well is make things inaccessible to the nth degree. Which is a systemic issue and this obviously, as you said, doesn’t really solve it.

    Mostly, though I just don’t particularly like the idea of installing even an add-on from a complete stranger. And of course there’s the fact it’s untested (though that’s a chicken and the egg kind of dilemma I suppose).

  2. 2 Sharon Wachsler June 22, 2011 at 10:44 pm

    Hi Cyndy, You make some good points. I hadn’t thought about the “installing untested software from a stranger” part, probably because I really don’t think in computerese. I agree with you that captcha is not an effective spam blocker and there are a lot of other things that are better. And I agree that a systemic solution, i.e., banning captcha, is the way to go. OTOH, while I am still agitating for that, I thought if there’s something that might help some people in the mean time, it might be worth offering as an option to consider. He contacted Vomit Comet, too, so he is obviously reading the disability blogs that are posting about how much they hate captcha. Maybe that will help. Basically, I look at this like how I look at gays in the military. I have a lot of problems with the military — big problems that are too numerous to go into here. So, I was not particularly involved in that form of gay rights activism. However, given that the military exists, and that it’s a big employer in this country, I think that those who want to enter it should have the right, and not be discriminated against based on sexual orientation (or gender, or disability, which they also do), so I supported repeal of the ban and supported repeal of DODT, and I’m glad that’s finally happening. But, it’s not a solution to the problem of the US military taking over other countries, killing civilians, running terrorist training camps, covering up rape and assault of its female enlisted and officers, doing everything under the sun to pollute and destroy the earth, and treating veterans like total crap.

    OK, that was longer than I intended, but you get my point. Yes, not an ideal solution or even really a solution, per se, but perhaps some help to some people while the larger problem is addressed.

  3. 3 Kevin White MSW June 26, 2011 at 8:21 pm

    Nice Article. I just tried to visit the link to the article detailing the offer for a captcha beating product. The link does not work. Hopefully this solution works for those able to access it, so that there is an alternative to the mind numbing audio samples given by most websites.

  4. 4 Sharon Wachsler June 26, 2011 at 8:34 pm

    Hi Kevin. Yes, I’m sorry about that. My other website has been down for the past 2 days, and I don’t know when I’ll be able to get it up again. Apparently there is too much bandwidth being used? My tech person will help me, but I won’t be able to work with her till Weds. Someone said they thought it might be OK to post that post, here, tho. I will look into it and get back to you.

  5. 5 Cyndy Otty June 27, 2011 at 8:11 am

    Yes. I’m not exactly against the add-on in the sense that it’s certainly something, which is better than nothing. I’m just wary from a software standpoint. Not that I’m necessarily against beta-testing or bleeding edge software; I think it’s that this is both and it’s unfamiliar is what causes me some personal trepidation.

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