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Imagine The Dark Future of CAPTCHA and Multifactor Authentication for the Blind

August 25, 2007 • Darrell Shandrow Hilliker

If you’re blind or severely visually impaired, imagine that you wake up one day to find…

  • You compose an e-mail to your sister, only to discover you can’t send it due to a visual CAPTCHA that provides no audio playback or other reasonable accomodation. A telephone number is given for visually impaired users. After waiting on hold for an hour, the person at the other end of the line has no clue how to help you. You consider switching e-mail providers, but you wonder if your bank account balance would support such a decision…
  • You log into your bank’s web site, only to find that a new visual security scheme has been implemented without considering your need for equal access. Since there is no reasonable accomodation for you as a blind person, your username and password are no longer sufficient and you have lost the ability to access something as simple as the balance of your own checking account! Since you do not live with a sighted person, you’re out of luck for a few days until you can find one with whom you trust with your personal bank account. Personal web surfing, for any reason, is not permitted at the office, so a co-worker is not an option.
  • You decide to log into PayPal to check your account balance there, only to find that the PayPal Security Key is now required for all customers! You never got one of those because the numbers it displays are only delivered visually. You assumed it wouldn’t be a requirement, or that accessibility would be considered before that happened. You’re now also locked out of your PayPal account! You give up, get showered, dress and leave for work…
  • At the office, you find yet another nasty surprise. All computers are now equipped with a visual display token for purposes of authentication and heightened security. The token displays a sequence of characters you must enter, in addition to your existing username and password, in order to be granted access to your work computer. Furthermore, due to the high security nature of the job, this process is required once every hour and anytime you leave your desk for breaks, lunch, etc. You suggest asking a supervisor for help with this process until it can be made accessible, but your employer sees fit to go ahead and get rid of you instead. Accomodating your needs would just be too much of an “undue burden”… You’re fired!
  • You return home to begin the process of applying for Social Security, Unemployment and other welfare benefits, only to find that most of the web sites require solving a visual CAPTCHA. You’ll have to go down to these separate offices in person! Getting assistance in person is an absolute nightmare! After waiting in line at Social Security for an hour, the agent says she is too busy to help you due to the need to serve other clients and, anyway, isn’t all this done online nowadays? You’re given a bunch of paperwork to have filled out by some sighted person, one of these days…
  • It takes so long to find competent sighted help that you don’t start receiving any welfare benefits for almost two months! In the meantime, you have lost your house and are now living in a homeless shelter! You can forget about another job, as most employers now require secure visual authentication, and most job related computer applications are virtually totally inaccessible to blind people…
  • Most assistive technology companies have since gone out of business, due to the implementation of visual authentication and the almost total lack of mainstream technology that even approaches any level of functionality with screen readers. Only a single company remains, delivering a screen reader to the few remaining blind government employees who retain their jobs by a thread. The Federal government is dying to be granted the ability to use the same visual authentication scheme as that employed in the private sector, if only they could successfully get Sections 504 and 508 of the Federal Rehabilitation Act repealed. There are national security reasons for doing this which clearly trump the needs of a few blind people. Congress and the President are in negotiations to make that happen any day now…

We should be afraid, be very afraid, of the clear and present danger posed by inaccessible CAPTCHA, visual only multifactor authentication schemes and other technologies that do not reasonably accomodate our needs. Our fear should not result in our cowering in a corner waiting for it to happen. Instead, we must become angry enough to start really doing something about it! Anger is not always a bad emotion. It is often a response to injustice, which we can choose to channel into taking positive action. As a blind community, are we up to the challenge of absolutely insisting that our need for equal accessibility be reasonably accomodated? As a blind individual, what actions will you take right now and later to ensure a brighter, more accessible future for you and your blind brothers and sisters? Don’t choose to remain in the dark one more second! Please feel free to take our poll on accessibility and provide your feedback by way of posting a comment to this article.

11 opinions on “Imagine The Dark Future of CAPTCHA and Multifactor Authentication for the Blind

  1. This post is ridiculous. I have been completely blind for several years and have depended on computer technology to assist me as a student. Perhaps I am one of he lucky few, but I have not faced insurmountable difficulty in accessing the information that I am looking for. The worst situation that I have run into is a broken visual verification measure on PayPal’s web-site that was quickly remedied by the company.

    What is the point in writing aggressive entries like this? How does this help the cause of accessibility? Wouldn’t more respect and understanding be earned for the blindness community if we were to speak reasonibly about our needs and not like those fearing a dooms-day conspiracy?

  2. Dear E.J. These visual authentication schemes are going in all the time, right now! By and large, they’re not including us in either design or implementation. What I’m talking about is not Doom’s Day. It is being done right now! I predict the scenario in my article will be somewhat true within 5 to 10 years if we don’t start doing something about it right now. Frankly, we should’ve already been on the stick with this stuff long ago, so we’re way behind the ball on our advocacy.

  3. Also, it is critical for us all to be constructive. So, my friend, what steps would you recommend taking in order to prevent such a future coming true?

  4. Unfortunately, I have to agree that if we don’t do something, this could be very true. The question isn’t if it will happen, but when. Yes, working with companies is good and the most desirable option, but I don’t see most companies actually doing something about captcha. Those that do, we thank, but those who refuse to listen, we have to publicize.

    If we don’t speak up, people won’t see the large amount of blind people who are capapble of jobs, and use sites as frequently as sighted people.

    As a college student, we sometimes don’t see the same accessibility issues. My biggest concern academically in the area of accessibility is accessing my ccollege email and Blackboard. I do tend to watch a lot of tech blogs, though, and that’s why/how I know that the picture Darrell paints issn’t that far off. Paypal is using multi-factorial verification for customers who want it. Banks are looking for ways to make their sites more secure. Some email users do run into captcha.
    An attitude of “it won’t happen” isn’t going to get us anywhere, the stakes are too high.

  5. I fear it is always easier to justify doing nothing (taking the path of lease resistance) than it is to commit to putting serious time and energy into disturbing the status quo for positive change. Thanks, Nickie, for your wonderful comment, which I think is spot on for this situation.

  6. Thank you for your site. I check in on it regularly. My blind husband uses JAWS and does a lot on the computer. But the Captcha thing is a real issue. Sadly, I think that lawsuits are the only thing that will work. I just emailed the Phone Factor people to ask them if a web site that uses Captcha could use their service instead? Not being a techie my question may not make any sense.

  7. Very interesting Darrell. Your vision of the future isn’t all that far off. I’ve personally seen several places where in the last year captia is being used more and more frequently in their websites. One is MySpace, When I initially signed up for MySpace earlier this year I only had to get sighted help to sign up. Now I can’t even make changes to my pages there as the captia comes up at every turn. Two other places that are using captia more and more often are Hotmail and Yahoo mail. Both employ captia more and more to verify the email messages that you are sending are from a person and not a spamming bot.

    Too many of us want to keep our heads buried in the sand and pretend the problem isn’t really there and won’t effect them. Well we’d all better wake up and relize the threat is real and growing worse by the day.

    We all need to unite instead of fight and come together as one united voice and demand equal and fair access to services that sighted persons take for granted. The various organizations also need to fight as one and not against each other to fight this problem that affects each and everyone of us.

  8. My only worry about this whole thing is, are there even enough of us in the blind/VI community to even make any kind of impact? Here it is 2007 and we can’t even sign up to sites like Myspace or Facebook without sighted help. We are a minority, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t have equal access. So what we might want to do is encourage friends, family members and people we work with who are sighted to contact these companies as well and drop them suggestions such as coming up with an alternative method to the captcha system without having to completely stop using it. Audio is not our only alternative. The GW Micro blog is proof of that idea. They use challenge and response, which makes it easier to do what you want without having to be constantly running into those virtual brick walls. and think about this, as people age, their sight also gets worse, so people who are older, but still want to use these services might be effected too. These captchas aren’t clear, because if they were that’d defeat the whole purpose of having them. So we need to continue to advocate, and get our sighted counterparts to help us as well. If we do that, the companies will understand that there really is a need for offering an alternative. They aren’t going to change things around just because a couple people are having trouble signing up. It’s unfortunate and I don’t like it either. that’s how it is now but it doesn’t always have to be this way.

  9. Hi everyone,

    My name is Victor and I think I know how we blind folks can get help with these accessibility issues. There is a woman named Kim Komando. She hosts a nationally syndicated radio talk show all about computers, electronics, the Internet and all things digital. She is heard on over 400 radio stations and her show is the most popular weekend talk show on radio!

    She answers questions about computer and digital issues and she personally helps all kinds of people with their individual problems. I think she’d be very glad to help us make the Internet more accessible. I strongly urge Darrell and all of us to visit her website at http://www.komando.com and email her. If enough of us do this, I’m sure she’d help us promote petitions and do whatever else she can. I’m also sure she’d talk about these issues on her show and write about them in her collumns and newsletters. Let’s all give her a try. Once again, visit her at http://www.komando.com and email her. If the show is on your local radio station, be sure and call her too.

  10. So what is the solution to this? We keep talking about the problem but no solution!!!!????

  11. Well, I have not lost a job because of those pesky authentication thingies but I’ve been extremely frustrated! Who knows, when I go to submit this comment it’s likely there will be one of those captcha bastards waiting to trip me up. I have been known to not post comments on blogs when I hit this speed bump. I get fed-up and I just leave.

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