An annoyance, an important security feature, an uncomfortable existential request: however you feel about being asked to prove you are not a robot, it has become a daily occurrence for most of us, but perhaps not one we would miss.
A new feature in the upcoming versions of iOS and macOS, Apple’s operating systems for iPhones and computers, promises to give the boot to “captchas” once and for all. Called “automatic verification”, the technology will allow sites to verify you are not a robot without you having to do anything at all.
Captchas – that’s “completely automated public Turing test to tell computers and humans apart” – are the little tests you sometimes see when signing up to a website to help stop fraud.
It may ask you to spot all the traffic lights in a picture, or type out some wobbly looking letters and numbers. If you get it wrong, it may ask you to start again, leading you to wonder if you really know what a traffic light looks like – or if you might be a robot after all.
“You likely don’t enjoy being interrupted by these,” said Apple’s Tommy Pauly. “I certainly don’t. The reason these experiences exist is to prevent fraudulent activity. If you run a server, you don’t want it to be overwhelmed by fraud. Some attempts to create accounts or buy products come from legitimate users. But other attempts may be from attackers or bots.”
The company worked with Fastly and Cloudflare, two companies that operate the infrastructure level of much of the public internet, to build the feature. It relies on the same sort of technology that underpins Apple’s efforts to replace passwords across the internet, and works by allowing your device to send an encrypted statement confirming it is being used by a human over to the requesting website.
Although the service is tied in to Apple’s iCloud network, the requesting site will not receive any personal information about the user or their device.
While Apple is the first to push such a technology to users themselves, the basic idea has been used by Google, which helped develop the standard and has built a similar system into Chrome. But Google’s version is so far focused on letting third parties build their own Captcha replacements, rather than ending the technology altogether.
In fact, Google may even lose out from the shift: since the company bought a startup called reCaptcha in 2009, it has used the human input from the tests as part of its training data for large machine-learning projects, first asking people to help it transcribe scanned books and later using the responses to train its machine-vision systems about road features in order to perfect its self-driving car projects.