PHOTO CAPTCHA + OCD = :-(

We’ve all come across them when trying to access something online – those little boxes with squiggly nonsense words that you have to squint at for a few seconds before you tentatively type in your best guess as to what they are. They’re a necessary evil and help keep things secure and comment sections from being buried under an avalanche of automated bot comments. I even use a simple one on the ‘Contact Me’ page of this site. Here are three from that page:

CAPTCHA CAPTCHA CAPTCHALike I said, the system I use is pretty simple and it doesn’t take a lot of work to figure out what they are. Still, it’s pretty good at keeping bot garbage out of my inbox.

Some of them are a little more stretched and are tougher to see:

CAPTCHA

[1]

Some of them have different colours, lots of lines and squiggles through the characters, or make the characters look 3-D. There are CAPTCHAs that have simple math problems to solve in them, others that have logos to identify, pointers that you must adjust to the proper spots… all kinds of stuff. In the never-ending game of cat and mouse between people who want to want to control access to systems and those who want to explore or exploit those systems, the CAPTCHA tree has grown many, many branches, each with a slightly different leaf.

I find many of them annoying but I understand their necessity and usually I can figure them out.

The other day, though, I went to do some online banking, and it seems like the bank has done some upgrades. I was presented with a photo CAPTCHA to solve. Ninety seconds later, I was on hold with the bank support line, dabbing my forehead with a napkin, and waiting to talk to someone to get my account unlocked.

I hate photo CAPTCHAs.

“It’s just a picture, Mark. Nothing to get worked up about,” you’re probably thinking. Well, consider the following:

CAPTCHA

[2]

Looks pretty simple, right? Not so fast…

These parts are obviously traffic lights:

CAPTCHAAs part of ‘traffic lights’, do they mean the crosswalk lights, too? They usually come as a set.

CAPTCHAI guess the crosswalk lights don’t matter since they’re in a picture with a traffic light. But wait, when they say ‘lights’ do they just mean the bulbs or the frames that they’re held in? Because one of them hangs just a tiny bit down into the next tile:

CAPTCHAAnd if they’re counting the frames the bulbs are held in, would it not then make sense to include the structure that’s holding them up?

CAPTCHAIf they’re counting the structure, would any structure that branches off the base count? Because if they do, then:

CAPTCHAI can’t see what’s at the top of that other structure, but I’m assuming that it’s a streetlight. If that’s the case, and it’s counted as part of the traffic light, what about the other streetlights?

CAPTCHAHow am I supposed to know what counts as a traffic light? Depending on how I look it, it can be anywhere between four and thirteen tiles. Making sure my bills are paid on time means I need to know what I’m supposed to be looking for.

Here’s another one:

CAPTCHA

[3]

Let’s go through the tiles one at a time:

  • #1 is easy. I’ve even heard of that store before. Definitely a store front.
  • #2… I’ve lived in an apartment building that had stores in the bottom, but I don’t see any. I’m calling this one NOT a store front.
  • #3 is a pretty crappy picture. I think it’s the underside of a bridge. I’m not sure but I’m thinking NOT a store front.
  • #4 is definitely NOT a store front, although it could be part of a traffic light (argghhhh).
  • #5 looks like the back of a warehouse, but there are plenty of stores in my town where the ‘store front’ is no more than a sign hanging on a cinder block wall. I think this is a store front.
  • #6 is pretty obviously some kind of business. Store front.
  • #7 is a tough one. One of the record stores in town has basement windows very similar to this. But… there aren’t any signs or doors or anything like that. I think it’s NOT a store front.
  • #8… I don’t know what the hell that is. It could be a store, could be the entrance to a parkade, maybe at a horse race track. Bus terminal? The entrance to a tunnel? It’s got signs and a way in so I’m going to say store front.

The worst part about these photo CAPTCHAs is that if you get it wrong, you don’t find out which ones you selected incorrectly. I know, I know… if it showed where you went wrong it would be easier to exploit it automatically, but Jeebus – would it hurt to use pictures that were at least in focus and weren’t taken at 2AM? Tile #3 looks like it was taken under the kind of light that one of Neptune’s moons get, and #8 could be anything that would have a sign and a hole in it.

Knowing that messing up a photo CAPTCHA test means having to reset a password (in a good case) or sit on the phone listening to hold music for who knows how long (not so good) or not being able to pay a bill or transfer money on time (bad), makes it stressful and starts up the flop sweat. I’d rather do almost any other kind of CAPTCHA. Give me something to figure out instead of something where I need to try and guess the intent/mindset of the person or machine that created the test.

I hate photo CAPTCHAs.

Stay safe.

[1] Picture downloaded from https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Captcha.jpg

[2] Picture downloaded from https://google.com/recaptcha/api2/demo

[3] Picture downloaded from https://google.com/recaptcha/api2/demo

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