Just when you think you have heard every crackpot theory for fighting the spam menace, a new one comes along that makes you sit up and take notice. How does using pictures of kittens to foil spammers grab you?
Bear with me, because the concept has some merit. Indeed, it was proposed by a researcher at the Microsoft 'Advanced Reading Technologies' group no less. Kevin Larson, speaking at the TypeCon 2007 conference in Seattle, has proposed a new twist on the Human Interactive Proofs (HIP) system best known through the CAPTCHA interface. HIP works by requiring a real human, as opposed to a computer driven spambot, to be able to identify something on screen. The human can, more often than not, quickly decipher the jumbled text presented on a patterned background, whereas the bot cannot. Or at least that used to be the case. HIP is an old technology in anti-spam terms, Microsoft has been using it for five years for example. This gives the spammers an edge, they have had time to perfect methods of getting around the protection.
Although, for now, CAPTCHA and its ilk are holding out against the spammers, the chinks in the HIP armor are starting to show. HIP systems are forever being tweaked and changed to stay ahead of the computers that are fast catching on and catching up. The clever money is on them overtaking the twisted text concept real soon now.
Larson and his group spend most of their time tweaking the distorted text, looking for ways to make it easier on the human eye and harder for the bots to spot. Larson also wonders whether we could do away with the text altogether and replace it with pictures.
In tests he has found that by displaying a grid of 16 images, cats and dogs for example, and asking the user to identify what is where the spammers can be locked out. For a while at any rate. It doesn't take a genius to realize that the spammers, with the huge financial and technical resources they have at their disposal, would quickly enough be able to automatically identify the photos unless an almost infinite number were available. It does take a genius to suggest that 'kittens are the wave of the future' as Larson did at TypeCon.
So could we soon see images of kittens playing with string, ripped from numerous videos of kittens playing with string, appearing on websites and forums all over the Internet? As unlikely as it may sound, I can think of no real reason why not. After all, the CAPTCHA idea seemed equally unlikely to become widespread until it did just that. The acid test of any anti-spam solution is workability. If it works, it will get adopted. Until it stops working or annoys too many users.
And who could ever get annoyed by pictures of kittens?