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Privacy & Security

No More Word Puzzles: Google Can Tell You're Human With One Click

Old CAPTCHAs required the user to decipher complicated word puzzles to verify that they were not an automated bot.

Old CAPTCHAs required the user to decipher complicated word puzzles to verify that they were not an automated bot. Google hide caption

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A squiggly word puzzle pops up as you're trying to buy concert tickets. You stare at the words, scratching your head, as time disappears for you to purchase those tickets. Your first few attempts are utter failures, and you wonder why confirming your humanity on the Internet has to be so difficult.

Those mind-bending days are over. Google announced Wednesday the launch of "No CAPTCHA reCAPTCHA," which gets rid of CAPTCHAs — those complicated distorted word puzzles — and can tell you're not a robot with just one click. Now the person just has to click a checkbox next to the statement "I'm not a robot."

With this new technology, Google says it can tell the difference between a human and an automated program simply by the way in which the person moves the mouse in the moments before the click. But in some rare cases, one click might not deliver confirmation, and a pop-up window will require users to solve distorted text.

New reCAPTCHAs do away with word puzzles and allow people to confirm they're human by simply checking a box.

New reCAPTCHAs do away with word puzzles and allow people to confirm they're human by simply checking a box. Google hide caption

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On mobile devices, the new reCAPTCHA works a little differently because there is no movement prior to tapping a button on a touch screen. Instead of checking a single box, users are asked to select all the images that correspond with a clue. For example, the clue could be a picture of a cat and the user would choose the images that match it among images of cats, dogs and hamsters.

Snapchat, WordPress and video game sales site Humble Bundle have already adopted the software. Google says that in the past week over 60 percent of WordPress' traffic and over 80 percent of Humble Bundle's traffic on reCAPTCHA got through with just the checkbox.

Vinay Shet, the product manager for Google's reCAPTCHA team, told Wired.com that the new reCAPTCHA will save users time.

On mobile devices, Google's new reCAPTCHA software prompts users to match a clue with corresponding images.

On mobile devices, Google's new reCAPTCHA software prompts users to match a clue with corresponding images. Google hide caption

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"For most users, this dramatically simplifies the experience," Shet says. "They basically get a free pass. You can solve the CAPTCHA without having to solve it."

But Google didn't develop this software just to make people's lives easier. Last year, artificial intelligence startup Vicarious announced it had developed software that can solve any type of CAPTCHA with at least 90 percent accuracy. Before that, spammers hired teams of CAPTCHA solvers in places like Russia and Southeast Asia. They paid them sweatshop wages — about 75 cents for every 1,000 CAPTCHAs solved.

CAPTCHAs (Completely Automated Public Turing Test To Tell Computers and Humans Apart) were developed in 2000 to protect websites from spam and abuse. By confirming a user is human, CAPTCHAs stopped automated bots from creating fake email addresses to spam you or from snatching up all the tickets to a concert.

Early CAPTCHAs had evenly spaced letters and numbers that computers could easily decipher. As CAPTCHAs became more advanced they used scrunched up characters to make it more difficult for computers to translate.

Luis von Ahn, an associate professor of computer science at Carnegie Mellon University who helped develop CAPTCHA, realized that CAPTCHAs were wasting people's time and brain power.

"Approximately 200 million of these are typed every day by people around the world. Each time you type one of these, essentially you waste about 10 seconds of your time," he told NPR in 2008. "If you multiply that by 200 million, you get that humanity as a whole is wasting around 500,000 hours every day, typing these annoying squiggly characters."

So he came up with a way to kill two birds with one stone. His software, reCAPTCHA, used CAPTCHAs to digitize old books and newspapers. The two words presented came directly from scanned books. The company was sold to Google in 2009.

But programs were built to decode those too. Vicarious' software is one of the first that can separate and distinguish each letter.

Google has been reworking its CAPTCHAs since 2013. On Valentine's Day, the company tested its new software by showing users undistorted words like "Love" and "Flowers" and relied on "advanced risk analysis" to distinguish between humans and bots. The new system measures the person's entire engagement with the CAPTCHA — before, during and after he interacts with it.

While Google's new reCAPTCHAs will inevitably save the user time and a headache, it raises privacy concerns. Google already has access to droves of personal information, but now it can identify a person by simple movements. However, Shet says Google will only be able to track a user's movements over the reCAPTCHA widget and not the entire Web page.

Samantha Raphelson is a digital news intern at NPR.org. You can reach out to her on Twitter.

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