A couple of years ago, I don’t remember being truly baffled by a captcha. In fact, reCAPTCHA was one of the better systems I’d seen. It wasn’t difficult to solve, and it seemed to work when I used it on my own websites.

Fast forward to 2012, and I am trying to log into my Envato Marketplace account on Graphic River. I haven’t been there in a few months, and recently I’ve been working on changing my passwords to be unique-per-site. Understandably, I forgot my password.

But I didn’t entirely forget my password— I knew there are three possible passwords, across two possible usernames. Rather than going through the entire reset password process, which is a hastle and a last resort, I decided to try and guess. After a couple of attempts and failures, I was presented with a reCAPTCHA.

Normally I don’t have an issue with this— after all, I am guessing a password to a user, and I applaud Envato for trying to protect my account. But this time, I couldn’t read the captcha.

??? secretary

While the word “secretary” is perfectly visible, albeit faded, the first word is more of a puzzle. “Onightsl”? “Onighisl”? Are those even words?

It’s important to note the way reCAPTCHA works. Each user (or bot) is presented with a control word, and a word unrecognized by OCR. This control word is already known to Google (who runs reCAPTCHA). If you get this first word right, it is assumed that you get the second word correct as well. So, in reality, you only need to guess the key word correctly.

I decided to just guess the first word and hope “secretary” was the control. It wasn’t.

Now, not only did I not know if the password I entered was correct or not, I had to resolve another captcha.

Captcha - ???

Wonderful. This was near impossible to solve, and instead of wasting my time, I hit the refresh button on reCAPTCHA to get a new image.

Captcha - ???

Seriously, I am now wasting my time. Refresh.

Captcha - Proximity ???

Ok, so this is a little bit better. “Proximity” and… “rsgsrem”? Or was that “rsgmem”? Refresh.

Captcha - And? ???

Another cut off word. “and”? Possibly. Refresh.

Captcha - ???

You can see where this was heading.


Captcha - ???

Captcha - ???

Captcha - ???

Captcha - ???

Captcha - ???

Again, and again, and again. The capatchas were not only difficult for a computer to read, but impossible for a human.

The problem is, computers are getting better at guessing captchas.

In August of 2010, Chad Houck presented at DEF CON 18 with a system that beat reCAPTCHA’s visual system 10% of the time. Google modified their system prior to Houck’s presentation, but it was quickly defeated by Houck who described the modified system as “easier” to crack.

The audio capatcha system is even worse— in May 2012, Adam, C-P and Jeffball presented at LayerOne (a hacker conference) showing a program that beat Google’s audio system 99.1% of the time.

In our attempt to distinguish humans from bots, we have only proved that bots can be just as human as we are— at least when it comes to solving these captchas.

I ended up resetting my password.