Third World Job: Human Captcha Filler

Posted on November 25, 2006

If you think captchas are going to save blogs from comment spam you might be wrong. Computers have been used to create most of the comment spam and computer programs have done a great job of removing a great deal of it -- but captchas won't be able to stop user generated spam. An article from the Guardian explains how a market could develop to pay humans to complete the captcha fields on blog comment reply forms while inserting annoying spam messages.

So who had done this? The junk filter had recorded their IP (internet) address. It resolved to somewhere in India. Which rang a bell: earlier this year, I spoke with someone who does blog spamming for a living - a very comfortable living, he claimed. But he said that the one thing that did give him pause was the possibility that rival blog spammers might start paying people in developing countries to fill in captchas: they could always use a bit of western cash, would have the spare time and, increasingly, cheap internet connections to be able to do such tedious (but paid) work.

A few days later I read a stunning report by George Packer in the New Yorker magazine - regrettably, it's not online - about the sprawling mega- city of Lagos in Nigeria. It's the world's sixth largest city, and growing fast; the concept of urban planning has collapsed and life is eked out from the margins of existence. Corruption isn't an occasional hazard; it underpins a near-feudal society. While there, Packer was approached by one of his guides, who offered him the promise of riches looted from a despot; the classic Nigerian scam.

Packer declined politely, attaching no blame to his would-be scammer: "He would have been regarded locally as a fool if he hadn't tried to exploit [me]," he noted without rancour. Elsewhere this week, deliveries began of the hand-powered laptop, Nicholas Negroponte's computing gift to the developing world.

I've no doubt it will radically alter the life of many in the developing world for the better. I also expect that once a few have got into the hands of people aching to make a dollar, with time on their hands and an internet connection provided one way or another, we'll see a significant rise in captcha-solved spam. But, as my spammer contact pointed out, it's nothing personal. You have to understand: it's just business.

The big question is how much money will be applied to a spam industry devoted to using human spammers? There is the possiblity that human captcha farms, which "employ" hundreds or thousands of human spammers, could emerge if the profit potential is big enough for spammers. It isn't difficult to imagine a scenario where illegal firms employ hundreds of people to fill in captchas. A similar situation has occured in the online gaming industry. In China game farming factories gather gold and weapons in virtual online worlds and resell them online.

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