"Please prove that you're human."
Read the blurry letters, add up some numbers, and now, tell us how you feel.
CAPTCHAs, mini-forms designed to protect websites from spammers, bots and other malicious online entities, have gotten increasingly clever over the years. They've had to, since computers got better at recognizing blurry letters, spammers are more sophisticated and bots have gotten sneakier.
And so, we, the actual humans who just want to send an email or see a page, are inconvenienced by something that's supposed to make life easier.
There are several varieties of CAPTCHA. There's the blurry letter CAPTCHA, a series of random letters or words in the box you must decipher through various forms of distortion. It's a tough balance to strike. The blurrier the letters, the more difficult it will be for a computer to recognize the text – and the same is true for humans.
Then there are the CAPTCHAs asking you to solve a math problem. They have to be hard for a computer to read because computers tend to be pretty good at math. But the problem has to be simple, because nobody's going to pull out a calculator to fill out a web form. Stalemate again.
And now a new trend: CAPTCHAs that give you an example of a situation and ask you how you feel about it.
An interesting concept – it's a bit difficult for a computer to parse emotion, but some of the questions are bound to have relative answers and someone could compile a database of "right" answers for every situation.
Regrettably, it's not possible to simply dispose of these things. Everyone's inboxes would soon be flooded with garbage and websites would come tumbling down due to the sheer volume of machine-submitted spam.
So is there a better way?
Using the Internet's ability to correlate huge amounts of information, including patterns of behavior, some companies, Google among them, are starting to display CAPTCHAs selectively – only when a visitor acts like a spammer, or if an IP address is recognized as belonging to a known troublemaker.
So the dark cloud of unbounded data collection has a silver lining; it's generally fairly easy to tell if there's a real person or a machine at the other end of the line.
At least for now.
Nick DeLorenzo is director of interactive and new media for The Times Leader. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.