Researcher Hopes Game is Key to Fighting Spam

By July 15, 2009

More than one in ten of us actually like spam. Maybe that’s a bit of an overstatement, but 12 percent of internet users are interested in buying products proffered by spam email, according to a study by the Messaging Anti-Abuse Working Group (MAAWG). "Although a small percentage of the computing population, these numbers still earn a significant enough return on investment to support a booming spam-driven underground economy," according to MAAWG. With spam accounting for 85 to 90 percent of worldwide email, it’s obvious more steps need to be taken – by consumers as well as security specialists – to combat this annoying plague.

One way to do this might be with a game. Computer scientist Dr. Jeff Yan has created an online shooting game to test the strength of CAPTCHA (the randomly generated text required to subscribe to many online services) technology against botnet-generated spam.

In order test CAPTCHA’s strength against automated attacks, researchers must manually enter thousands of samples, a testing system that is tedious and expensive.

By turning labeling into a game, the process is expedited. Players shoot CAPTCHA characters by jointly identifying them (Ok, Left 4 Dead it’s not), which helps narrow down the algorithms botnets use in manipulating CAPTCHA.

“An average game session produced 25 correct labels per minute, giving 1,500 per hour,” said Dr Yan. It takes about 10,000 labels to correctly measure a CAPTCHA site’s robustness.

“As this game supports a large number of parallel sessions, which are limited only by the network bandwidth and game server’s CPU and memory, there is also a lot of scope to increase the labeling rate dramatically,” Dr. Yan said.

While crowdsourcing scientific research is a growing phenomenon, adding a fun factor will definitely help its acceleration, as gaming structures and behaviors become increasingly integrated into other online activities.

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