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Google patent CAPTCHA killer?

Google filed a patent in July 2007 that could change the very landscape of the web forever. And that same patent could also effectively kill off the CAPTCHA…

Google filed a patent in July 2007 that could change the very landscape of the web forever. And that same patent could also effectively kill off the CAPTCHA…

CAPTCHA: patently out of date?

According to a WIPO (Word Intellectual Property Organization) filing, Google’s new patent appears to pave the way for what could be dubbed the CAPTCHA killer:

“Digital images can include a wide variety of content. For example, digital images can illustrate landscapes, people, urban scenes, and other objects. Digital images often include text. Digital images can be captured, for example, using cameras or digital video recorders.

Image text (i.e., text in an image) typically includes text of varying size, orientation, and typeface. Text in a digital image derived, for example, from an urban scene (e.g., a city street scene) often provides information about the displayed scene or location. A typical street scene includes, for example, text as part of street signs, building names, address numbers, and window signs.”

From the point of view of Google, their proposed technology patent is a monumental leap forward. They’ll be able to index any amount of images and video, enhancing the value of our content along the way.

While the technology is significant, it’s the kind of thing I expected someone to produce sooner rather than later. I am in a way relieved that it’s Google and not some undisclosed cabal of developers, hidden out in Russia somewhere.

However, there are thousands more developers out there, some of which make their money from less than reputable computer-aided pursuits, such as the proliferation of “spam” email and ‘blog comments.

If it is the case that Google has figured out a way of reading such textual novelties from images, then their successes will be watched closely with secluded scrutinizing eyes, both near and far.

Google may well be paving the way for what could well be the death of the CAPTCHA — potentially opening the flood gates to unsolicited ‘blog comments and email messages.

What is CAPTCHA?

CAPTCHA is an acronym, which stands for: Completely Automated Public Turing test to tell Computers and Humans Apart.

In its most common form, a CAPTCHA is a series of numbers and letters from the alphabet, which are rendered as an image. Plus, it’s often common to obscure the image or the characters in some way, to make it more difficult for software to read those characters.

You may well have seen a CAPTCHA in your travels, when adding a comment to a ‘blog, for example. There’s even one on this ‘blog, under the Contact web page.

Alternatives to CAPTCHA

Because of the way that the CAPTCHA works, they offer up accessibility problems to visually-impaired people using text-based browsers, as only a small percentage of them have a “hear me” option with the image contents read by a computer-generated voice.

For the most part, your average ‘blog shouldn’t need to use a CAPTCHA. If you’re using WordPress, then you’ve got the Akismet Plugin at your disposal.

Alternatively, there’s the Gatekeeper Plugin, which instead of using obfuscated images, employs simple logical challenges, like asking the question: “What color is an orange?”, for example.

Also, there’s SAPTCHA, which stands for Semi Automatic Public Turing Test to Tell Computers and Humans Apart:

“The key concept is same as with CAPTCHA: user is presented with test question or instructions and must give correct answer to use resource. Main difference is that computer does not try to automatically generate “unique” test questions on each query; only verification of answer is automatic. Instead, unique test question and answer[s] is set by moderator or owner when SAPTCHA is installed, and should be easy to change if needed.”

Privacy that’s not picture-perfect

The implications of Google’s efforts are even more profound; there could be privacy concerns here, too. So I posed the issue to Kate.

Imagine if you will: an excited team, on cloud nine from landing a big job, takes a picture in their boardroom, their winning presentation pitch on how to salvage a company’s reputation behind them. Suddenly, their bulleted list of ingenious steps to cover up unsavory news is the first result for the company’s namesake search on Google. So much for the confidentiality agreement.

They say a picture paints a thousand words. If you’re filing confidential photographs or just posting ‘blog articles, finding yourself the subject of a breach of privacy or the unhappy recipient of a slew of junk email might just leave you lost for words and face that’s a picture of rage…

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By Wayne Smallman

Wayne is the man behind the Blah, Blah! Technology website, and the creator of the Under Cloud, a digital research assistant for journalists and academics.

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