postheadericon TECH TALK: Captured by CAPTCHA

You know these things, called CAPTCHAs, that are found anywhere a website wants to make sure you are a real human being reading the page, and not some computer bot trying to login, create an account, make a post, or in short, gain access to something it shouldn’t.

They are clearly identifiable by being a box full of near indecipherable letters forming words that don’t (yet) exist. CAPTCHAs baffle and irritate me at the same time, and clicking the little speaker to have another computer bot try and pronounce the non-words just makes matters worse.

 But in talking to web developers and doing a bit of research, I’ve found out why you see so many CAPTCHAs on websites these days, and why these mini-word puzzles are getting harder and harder for us mortals to figure out. It seems we can safely blame this inconvenience on spammers, and yes, an army of Asian slaves being paid to solve CAPTCHAs for their unscrupulous employers.

The same folks who email you a plea from an Angolan widow trying to send you 1 million USD (if you only provide your online bank account # and password) are the same folks that send you Viagra adverts, private-part enhancements, and weight-loss links every single day – filling up your Gmail junk box with thousands of worthless emails a month – are also hiring Indians, Sri-Lankans, Bangladeshis and perhaps even Nepalis to help them do their bidding.

According to a Commtouch report, in the first quarter of 2010, there were over 18 billion spam messages sent every day. And I’m sure you feel that the majority of those messages came directly to you. I know I do. This spam contains bogus pharmaceutical adverts, phishing scams and in general, crap that wastes all of our time. From a worldwide point of view, this activity costs the global citizenry over $50 billon USD per year in lost productivity. 50 billion...

But in order for these spammers-scammers to operate, they basically need two things nowadays: fresh email addresses (as old ones get blacklisted quickly) and fresh human eyeballs to decrypt the CAPTCHAs needed to get tens of thousands new email addresses each year.

Here is how it works: a spammer will acquire or write a program that crawls the web looking for free email sources, and then automatically creates an account to be used to send us this trash. But these spambots can’t easily break through the CAPTCHA barriers put in place by most all email providers like Google and Yahoo. But poor Asians willing to crack these CAPTCHAs are being employed to provide solutions for the CAPTCHAs, helping the spammer get what they need - a hoard of fresh email addresses.

The UK Register reports that these spam slaves get paid about $4 USD per day to do the deed, with many of these computer sweatshops being located in India. Working conditions are thought to be tough, but instead of operating dangerous equipment, the workers sit all day behind a cheap LCD monitor. This human bot technique has proved very successful, and is the main reason why no tech giant, to include Microsoft, has been able to stop the flood of spam that threatens to drown the Internet into uselessness within the next few years.

And this already untenable situation is about to get worse. The number of IPv4 addresses is said to be near exhaustion (over 4.3 billion). An IP address is what makes all our activities on the Internet possible, since every mobile phone, computer, or server needs one or more. A new protocol, IPv6, is being rolled out that will keep those addresses coming, but has less spam-protection built into the architecture - for example, blacklisting of spammer-used addresses is not possible in IPv6 as with IPv4.

Which may mean an ever more need for CAPTCHA sweatshops, unless computer scientists find another way to defeat spammers–scammers soon. But news from email providers does not bode well for a reduction of spam (or spam sweatshops) anytime soon: Gmail reported that the percentage of spam-to-real email jumped over 2.6% in just one month this year. And the majority of this spam jump was in support of new porno sites.

Personally, I find the entire situation disturbing, and just another indication that as a global society, we are in a state of decline – despite the great advances in technology in the past 50 years or so. We can send robots to Mars, but can’t stop spambots from deluging our inboxes with advertising for penis enlargements. It’s a sorry and sordid state of Internet affairs.

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Jiggy Gaton
lives in Kathmandu and is an aging technologist - has been since the days of Woodstock - so in the words of Roland The Gunslinger "he is from a world now gone by." However, Jigs is extremely up-to-date on all things tech and is also available for hire.
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