Now I’ve CAPTCHA’d Your Attention

Back to telephony SPAM or SPIT again. Hannes Tschofenig noted on his blog the publication of an RFC draft on the use of CAPTCHAs in SIP.

For the uninitiated, CAPTCHA means “Completely Automated Public Turing Test to Tell Computers and Humans Apart”, or in other words an automated test of your humanity. In the context SPAM over Internet Telephony, the aim is to tell genuine human callers from ‘bots’ or software that aims to make our phones ring and play unwanted marketing messages at us.

Some of the choices are laid out there, for example a system (corporate PBX for example) could challenge an incoming call, by playing a sound, then asking you to describe the sound. Or in the case of a video call, show you a picture and ask you to describe it in words before connecting the call. A moment’s examination would allow a human to conclude “teapot”, where a computer looking at a cartoon or photo teapot would need to expend a lot of CPU to reach the same result.

Ok, you may say that computers are so smart now that they can recognize pictures, or do automatic speech recognition (speech to text) remarkably well. This is true, to a degree, but the fact is that clever CAPTHCAs will demand heavy processing on the attacker’s side, and this works against what they are trying to do. After all, they want to implement systems that can make thousands of calls per hour at low cost. If we increase the cost of the calls by adding a quarter of a second of CPU to each call, then we give the telephony spammers a capacity problem, and force them to spend much more on server machines. By making SPAM an economic problem once again, we can raise the barriers to entry.

The draft text can be found here, and Hannes’s blog is here.

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1 thought on “Now I’ve CAPTCHA’d Your Attention

  1. Hans Persson

    It may be true that this will cost an attacker extra CPU cycles, but more importantly it will also cost the defendant a large proportion of their calls. Now, I haven’t happened upon this in a VoIP context yet, but I do accasionally see it for email.

    Unless I have a very pressing reason to contact that person, no mail will be sent. If I just had a comment about something they said on a mailing list or some notes about a draft they wrote or something, they probably won’t get to see that.

    If someone can’t be bothered to handle their own inbox, don’t count on me to do it for them.

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