22 September 2009

Accessible CAPTCHAs

One of the most common issues that arise when discussing accessibility and security, is the use of CAPTCHA images on web pages. These are used to differentiate between real human users and automated systems that might want to submit forms to register fake users, create spam or add links to malicious web sites in forum postings, blog comments and the like. CAPTCHAs are also in the news again after Google acquired reCAPTCHA, one of the larger free CAPTCHA providers.

CAPTCHAs also sparked a new topic in the Web Security Mailing List yesterday, Complex CAPTCHA Solutions raised the subject of the benefits and usability issues relating to CAPTCHA and alternative complex methods.

Partial image of the article 'Cracking the Captcha code' from Ability Magazine

An article in this quarter's issue (Issue 74 Summer 2009) of Ability Magazine discusses the problem and alternative approaches such as audio versions, logic puzzles and image recognition or even having a human operator available to help.

Using CAPTCHAs on web sites where there are particularly sensitive data or as part of authentication mechanisms before providing access to sensitive or high-value information, is almost never justified. The identification and authentication mechanisms should be sufficient in themselves.

The most appropriate use for CAPTCHAs is on high usage web sites where the criticality of information is low, and the benefits to successful abuse greater. But then the owners of these sites have the resources to develop effective CAPTCHA systems and spend time maintaining the robustness of the method against automated systems and other attacks. The larger the user base, the greater the incentive there is to break the method. See also suggestions on an effectiveness test and my discussion on the security implications of Web Content Accessibility Guidelines 2.0 compliance.

So, normally there are simpler ways to prevent spam on most sites that might consider using CAPTCHAs. There is a good summary on the WebAIM blog and discussion list, based on ideas like the Honeypot Captcha. These measures should be used in the first instance for response forms, forum registration and the like. Proceed from there only if a problem occurs, and spend time thinking about other security matters.

Ability Magazine can be obtained by subscription but it is also a free benefit to members of the British Computer Society (BCS) Assistive Technology Group, formerly the BCS Disability Group.

Update 28th September 2009: I just read Using Web Analytics to Assess CAPTCHA Usability on Smiley Cat Web Design which describes an assessment of how many visitors to a web page had difficulty with the CAPTCHA by looking at how often they reloaded it.

Posted on: 22 September 2009 at 07:27 hrs

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