The technology is used mostly to block spammers and bots that try to automatically harvest email addresses or try to automatically sign up for or make use of Web sites, blogs or forums. CAPTCHA, whose users include Yahoo and Google, blocks automated systems, which can't read the distorted letters in the graphic.
The algorithm for CAPTCHA is public, as the "P" in the name implies. The test was developed in various forms around 1996, but it got its distinctive name in 2000 from researchers at Carnegie Mellon University and IBM. Cracking the algorithm won't make the CAPTCHA vulnerable, since the algorithm is only used for generating the random series of letters and numbers in the image. The system works because humans and computers process strings of characters differently.
One of the problems with CAPTCHA is that sometimes the characters are so distorted that they can't even be recognized by people with good vision, let alone visually handicapped individuals. Depending on local regulations for handicapped access to Web sites, this can also be a compliance issue for some Web-based businesses.
CAPTCHA technology is easy to implement, but requires some knowledge of hypertext preprocessor (PHP) or other Web scripting languages. For more information and links to extensive resources, check the How to use CAPTCHA Web site and The CAPTCHA Project. Both sites also have examples of CAPTCHAs and in-depth tutorials on how to develop and implement CAPTCHA for your Web site.
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This was first published in April 2007