Parable of the Captcha - The futility of fighting automated spam with automated methods.

By : Shabda Raaj

(A story about Captcha, and why they do more bad than good. You may also like Parable of the Nowfollow)

Part 1: Captcha and Spammers

In a time not so long ago, and not so far off existed a country called Theweb. It was a well populated place, populated with upstanding citizens who called themselves Webpage, and lived together in harmony.

For long there was no conflict in Theweb, but where happiness resides can evil be the far behind? The evil S.P.Ammers infiltrated Theweb. They were able to bend a Webpage to do their bidding.

Of course the Webpages were enraged. How dare the evil S.P.Amers do their evil in the fair land of Theweb? So they developed a weapon called Captcha. The S.P.Ammers evil weapons were useless against Captcha, and so Theweb had a period of peace and prosperity.

But of course the S.P.Ammers were not waiting during this time. They had developed huge weapons such as Botnets which broke Captcha, and rendered it ineffective. Chaos reigned in Theweb, while the Webpages rushed to build bigger, stronger and better Captcha. Ah a war it was! The Webpages building bigger and stronger Captchas, the S.P.Ammers building bigger and stronger Botnets to fight them.

And yet, Webpages had a single purpose, a single Raison d'entre. They wanted to serve TheHumans, who seeked information the Webpages had. TheHumans were affected less than S.P.Ammers, but Captchas made it difficult for them to use Webpages as well. As the Captchas got bigger and stronger, it got harder and harder for TheHumans to use Webpages.

Part 2: Sometime later

The Captcha-Botnet arms race heated up. TheHumans caught in this crossfire, had so much trouble talking to Webpage that they stopped using all together.

Part 3: The Moral of the story

As I argued in Parable of the Nofollow, some social problems have no technical solution. Trying to beat automated spam using automated methods is a very slippery slope. There is one area, where spam is even more rampant than comment spams - Email. Just wonder if you needed to crack a captcha, each time you needed to send a mail. And captchas, have been getting stronger, and more difficult to crack for humans. And yet spammers can crack the hardest captchas with greater than 10% efficiency. How long till the efficiency of humans and bots start to converge? Of course Spam is a problem, and we need to find a method to combat this menace. Akismet does a very good job of identifying comment spam, and it is free or extremely affordable, depending on your needs. Of course it can have some false positives/false negatives, so human some intervention will be needed.

By now, we have a very good idea how to fight spam unobstusively, using lessons we learnt in fighting email spam. Let us use these techniques to fight comment spam and give captcha a rest.

If you liked this parable, you may like to read, Parable of the nofollow, or subscribe to the feed so you can stay on top of such stories.

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