A captcha is program used to verify that a human, rather than a computer, is entering data. Captchas are commonly seen at the end of online forms and ask the user to enter text from a distorted image. The text in the image may be wavy, have lines through it, or may be highly irregular, making it nearly impossible for an automated program to recognize it. (Of course, some captchas are so distorted that they can be difficult for humans to recognize as well.) Fortunately, most captchas allow the user to regenerate the image if the text is too difficult to read. Some even include an auditory pronunciation feature.
By requiring a captcha response, webmasters can prevent automated programs, or "bots," from filling out forms online. This prevents spam from being sent through website forms and ensures that wikis, such as Wikipedia, are only edited by humans. Captchas are also used by websites such as Ticketmaster.com to make sure users don't bog down the server with repeated requests. While captchas may be a minor inconvenience to the user, they can save webmasters a lot of hassle by fending off automated programs.
The name "captcha" comes from the word "capture," since it captures human responses. It may also be written "CAPTCHA," which is an acronym for "Completely Automated Public Turing test to tell Computers and Humans Apart."
Updated: May 8, 2009