Sweatshops: The Ultimate Botnet?

Opinion: It's a clever, if sinister, idea: Pay people 2 cents an hour to click on ads and spam blogs. Computers should make most of these jobs obsolete.

Its not funny at all, even though I find myself chuckling at it. Every now and then you read stories about how people in the Third World are being paid to perform repetitive tasks to assist in fraudulent Internet schemes.

My favorite story is of the Chinese sweatshop video gamers. They play multiplayer role-playing games like Blizzards World of Warcraft, aka WoW, and accumulate valuable assets, such as virtual gold and weapons, which they then sell, for real money, to rich, lazy Americans too busy or untalented to acquire the assets the old-fashioned way.

Its a cool story, a tragicomedy. Its got that bizarre and yet credible flavor, a strange mixture of modern technology and Third World poverty. But Im not sure I believe it, at least not as a mass phenomenon.

/zimages/5/28571.gifGoogle has issued a report saying that click fraud claims are overblown. Evan Schuman says that the message is legit, but hed prefer another messenger. Click here to read more.

In the case of WoW and other such games, for example, there have been reports for years of how the games can be cheated through scripting and vulnerabilities. It has to be much easier to work the system that way than hiring human beings, even ones who work on the cheap.

And some of the stories dont add up in some ways. A Bloomberg story tells of a New Delhi company that hires people to click on ads. They are expected to work from home or cyber-cafes. Bora, who runs the click network Shipranet, says, "Theres nothing wrong with looking through a shop window even if you dont buy."

Clearly the work requires literacy and basic knowledge of how to use a computer and the Internet, and a job clicking on ads cant really pay all that much. Surely a person with these qualifications can get a better job, although maybe the lifestyle makes up for the low wages.

With most of these malicious applications the long-term upside for automation is far greater than for the personal touch. People just dont scale like genuine software bots. Humans have a few advantages, at least for now: Their behavior seems more human just from patterns of use, inconsistencies and the like.

But all this says is that the bot that looks less human than a human is not sophisticated enough. Theres no reason bots couldnt insert semi-random pauses or engage in behavior, such as following links unrelated to the task at hand, that would look less automated.

Another use of the human bot is for applications that need to get past a captcha or Turing Test. Blog comment spamming is one application of this. The author of this story postulates that massive blog comment spam in spite of a captcha was due to human activity, but he has no proof.

But blog comment spam is a loser application for paid humans. The action and the money are in click fraud, where some of the leads can cost an advertiser $100. Companies are beginning to emerge to combat click fraud—ClickFacts for example—and theyll have a much bigger challenge from sophisticated bots than from dirt-poor click slaves.

Security Center Editor Larry Seltzer has worked in and written about the computer industry since 1983.

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