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Captcha-22: When online security hurts sales

A captcha.

One of Ticketmaster's new captchas by Solve Media.

Online ticket seller Ticketmaster is trying to cut its customers a break. Not a discount, but better service. The website is doing away with captchas -- you know, those little hard-to-read sequences of letters and numbers you sometimes have to type in to make an online purchase. But it's not doing away with online security.

Ticketmaster is worried that you and I are bots, those automated scripts, or pieces of software which can flood the site, buying up all the Beyonce tickets. In order to tell flesh-and-blood Beyonce fans from soulless scalpers, Ticketmaster has customers fill out captchas, which in case you don’t know, is an acronym.

Tom Satwicz, a consultant with Blink Interactive, a firm that helps companies make their websites more user friendly, explains that it stands for: “Completely Automated Public Turning Test to Tell Computers and Humans Apart."

Satwicz made a tiny slip of the tongue, saying "turning”, but meaning "Turing," as in the pioneering computer scientist. That’s one of the problems with captchas. We humans sometimes make errors. And if you don’t get the captcha right the first time, it gets harder the next.

“People get annoyed and often times they’ll just leave the site instead of making that purchase,” says Whitney Hess,  an independent website consultant.
 
That annoyance is why Ticketmaster says it’s switching to shorter, easier captchas. Instead of text, Ticketmaster customers will have to solve image puzzles. You might be presented with a picture of a car, a flower and a dog and be asked to identify the animal

"This is something that is reasonably pleasant for the human being to go through but really difficult for computers to do," says Arun Sundararajan, a professor of digital strategy at NYU’s Stern School of Business.

Because artificial intelligence is good at text, he predicts more companies will switch their captchas to images.

Ticketmaster says the change to images will save you about seven seconds --  and that could help you score Beyonce tickets before they sell out.

About the author

Sally Herships is a regular contributor to Marketplace.

One of Ticketmaster's new captchas by Solve Media.

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And it took them how long to figure out that captchas are annoying?

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