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Google’s Garbled Audio CAPTCHA

June 22 2010 | by

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Last year, I attended a multi-day conference to provide input to the National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped on its then-new digital book playback equipment. My employer was enthusiastically supportive of my participation, as long as I kept up with my work responsibilities.

But things went awry the first night in my hotel room. Why? The culprit was CAPTCHA. Specifically, the CAPTCHA associated with Google’s e-mail client, Gmail.

a captcha window

As my online connection from the hotel room was a little iffy, Gmail decided I needed to verify who I really was via CAPTCHA, the program that requires additional verification by inputting letters and numbers into a display box. Because I am blind and use a screen reader, I couldn’t perform this task without help. Thus, I couldn’t read my e-mail or catch up on work.

Google does provide an audio CAPTCHA for blind computer users who cannot see the visual characters that appear on our screens. But try as I might, I could not figure out what was being said when I linked to the audio file. That’s because to fool potential spam engines, Google runs several audio streams at once — sometimes in foreign languages like Japanese. There was so much background noise I just couldn’t hear the numbers and letters and numbers being read aloud to me.

It turns out that my experience was not an unusual one. When those helpful computer gurus at Blind Bargains conducted a survey of 63 blind and visually impaired computer users last week, they found that nearly three-quarters (73 percent) of the people to whom they presented Google’s audio CAPTCHA couldn’t figure out what was being said. Study participants made comments such as, “Garbled; impossible to hear; jargon; confusing; horrible!” Minus a couple of expletives, those were the things I had been saying, too!

CAPTCHA stands for Completely Automated Public Turing Test To Tell Computers and Humans Apart. Alan Turing was the guy who invented this particular kind of test in 1950, but don’t blame him. And don’t rail against CAPTCHA technology; it protects bloggers from getting hundreds of unsolicited, automated and often-obnoxious advertisements for things one might not want one’s blog or website to be associated with.

As an alternative, Firefox has a CAPTCHA solution called WebVisum that automatically solves CAPTCHA puzzles. The downside is that the program is by invite-only, and can be complicated to find. As a PC user, I don’t use Firefox enough to have memorized the browser’s keyboard commands. I currently use Internet Explorer with my Window-Eyes screen-reading program. (The program also works with the free NVDA screen reader.)

Despite the myths, most blind people don’t have super-human hearing capabilities, nor do we have Extra Sensory Perceptions. These days I take the lazy person’s way out — and get my kid to complete the CAPTCHA edit box for me. Of course, the drawbacks of this approach are obvious when one considers my experience during the NLS conference.

Like everyone else using the Web, the blind and visually impaired community wants to post comments online, subscribe to newsletters, enroll in Internet-based services, download Podcasts, write our own blogs — and we certainly want to be able to get our e-mail!

Google, please take note of this survey and figure out how to make your audio CAPTCHA as accessible as your visual version.


  • Deaf User

    I would say the same thing about Google’s “auto” caps for YouTube videos that do not make sense either.

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  • deaf user
  • J.J.

    Thanks for mentioning our study. Just one clarification to make, the survey was actually conducted using 63 people who were not necessarily blind at all. In fact, most if not all participants were sighted individuals. We did this to eliminate any biases toward audio CAPTCHA’s blind people may hold.

  • Nick Fraelich

    I completely agree! As a legally blind person, I find it so frustrating how underrepresented this problem is. Even the official CAPTCHA site says “comes with an audio test to ensure that blind- blah blah”, what a cop-out. As long as only blind people are concerned about this (and a hell of a lot of them are), nothing will get done.

    There’s no way to contact them, nothing. I just feel helpless.

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