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Anti-Spam Webforms Leave Out The Blind 757

Posted by timothy
from the turning-a-deaf-eye dept.
geekee writes "An article on CNET claims that a technique whereby a user enters a code word displayed in an image in order to register for a service such as an e-mail account discriminates against the blind. Advocacy groups for the blind are even hinting at lawsuits against companies using this practice. A proposed audio workaround for the blind still has problems since it has to be garbled to the point where most people can't understand it to prevent a computer from recognizing the letters. Brings up some interesting issues surrounding the Turing test."
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Anti-Spam Webforms Leave Out The Blind

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  • Turing Test? (Score:4, Interesting)

    by CommieBozo (617132) on Wednesday July 02, 2003 @04:45PM (#6352874) Journal
    What are the "interesting issues surrounding the Turing test?" I don't think generating a poor quality recording of some random word has anything to do with useful artificial intelligence.
  • Turing test (Score:2, Interesting)

    by Lane.exe (672783) on Wednesday July 02, 2003 @04:47PM (#6352891) Homepage
    The Turing test should hold true on audio. Anyone ever tried using voice recognition software/speech-to-text software? Even if it was a computer listening in with this software, there's a good chance that the computer is going to get it wrong anyway.
  • by Ophidian P. Jones (466787) on Wednesday July 02, 2003 @04:47PM (#6352893)
    No matter what you do to improve conditions for a large group of people, some much smaller group will still be inconvenienced or have their level of inconvenience slightly raised. In this case, we have a very important tool used to fight spammers in their quest to sign up for email accounts automatically. Billions of pieces of spam float around the 'net every day. How many blind people are there?

    This reminds me of new 25-cent public bathrooms tested by New York City awhile back. You paid 25 cents to go use it, and it cleaned itself and smelled great and so on. Then people in wheelchairs complained they couldn't use them (because they were too small), and were being discriminated against. So, the company made a larger version. Except now, you had bums popping in a quarter, and having a free room for the night. More lawsuits ensued.

    When will it stop?
  • Case in point: (Score:5, Interesting)

    by dewie (685736) <dbscully@@@gmail...com> on Wednesday July 02, 2003 @04:49PM (#6352918)
    It's probably worth pointing out that the /. account signup employs just such a technique.

    And yes, I can see how this can be viewed as discriminatory, but the problem of devising an alternative is far from trivial.
  • *sigh* (Score:2, Interesting)

    by Horny Smurf (590916) on Wednesday July 02, 2003 @04:50PM (#6352930) Journal
    Why do I get the feeling that when all is said and done, a handful of lawyers will be able to go out and buy yachts, but blind people won't be any better off?
  • solved (Score:4, Interesting)

    by Fux the Pengiun (686240) on Wednesday July 02, 2003 @04:51PM (#6352946)
    Huh, I thought this had already been solved? I was reading about this issue on CNN's similar story [cnn.com] last week, and they mentioned the outcry from the blind and mute community over this issue. However, they also said Microsoft had already come up for a solution with regards to hotmail (M$'s free internet based e mail service) by simply not applying the test to the blind. WindowsXP checks to see if a Braille translator [enablemart.com] is hooked up to your computer, and relays this through your .NET passport to Hotmail. If it is, you don't have to go through that mess.

    Sounds like a good solution to me! Besides, if they do this for the blind, and use that audio test thing instead, the deaf will be all over them.
  • A better way... (Score:5, Interesting)

    by Qzukk (229616) on Wednesday July 02, 2003 @04:51PM (#6352959) Journal
    If we know the target language, then you could produce a challenge based on a sentence. Say something like
    "Thirteen red small dogs went to the zoo."
    What size were they? (to which the answer would be "small")

    You could mix and match questions and adjectives to keep spammers on their toes. The only drawback is that this is only effective for as long as you have a bigger dictionary system than the spammers. Using a larger sentence or paragraph with more complexities should help.

    "[count] [color] [size] [age] object [and [count] [color] [size] [age] [object] ...] verb [location] [time]." ... as long as you've got a big enough dictionary that can fill in the blanks, generating these messages as a challenge should be a cinch. an encrypted string in the Subject (which is fairly dependably returned in the reply) could be used to identify the particular message, and the answer could be looked up

  • by BagOBones (574735) on Wednesday July 02, 2003 @04:53PM (#6352977)
    Using audio, ask the user a question that is hard for a computer to interpret.

    What is the first vowel in your last name? (leave blank for none)

    If you added all the digits in you phone number up what would be their sum?

    I am sure some text to speech software could produce good text, and someone could parse the sentence, but if you randomized the questions enough it should deter most automated attacks.

    Then again these type of questions may offend those who just can't figure out the answers.
  • Re:Monitors. (Score:3, Interesting)

    by mgs1000 (583340) on Wednesday July 02, 2003 @04:57PM (#6353030) Journal
    Just as braille displays are an alternative to "regular" monitors, I am sure there are plenty of alternative email providers that don't do this. A free market has a way of providing alternatives when there is a need.
  • by 4doorGL (591467) on Wednesday July 02, 2003 @05:01PM (#6353081) Homepage
    Think of it this way. These companies are giving away free e-mail service. Sure, there's pop-up ads and banners all over the place, but will the blind actually follow the ads/banners? No.

    So basically, you want a company offering a free service to go out of their way, spend thousands of dollars and man-hours to create a system for the blind that won't benefit their company? Sure, it would be nice if humanity was that kind, but its not.
  • by Atario (673917) on Wednesday July 02, 2003 @05:01PM (#6353086) Homepage
    I sort of assumed there was such a thing all along. Something like those "pinpression" toys [discovery.com] with all the parallel pins that you can push on and make an imprint of your hand, only driven by actuators. Why wouldn't this work?

    (Hold on...after a little Googling, I found this instance of the exact thing I'm proposing [nist.gov]. Go and buy it, blind people! And not just for anti-spam graphics; as with any new medium, just imagine the pr0n possibilities.)
  • discriminatory? (Score:5, Interesting)

    by robi2106 (464558) on Wednesday July 02, 2003 @05:07PM (#6353151) Homepage Journal
    This is not discriminatory. And speaking of that, why does every group, sect, division, race, gender, species, think that anything that isn't designed with them in mind is discriminatory? There are simply too many types of people, environments, ethics, laws, and other variables for every system to work equally, or even adequately for every person.

    If I were to provide a service (even a paying one) of some sort (for example a dog wash) but then require that any customer that wants to use my service and pay me for it must hop once on their left legg as a way of verifying that they are in fact a biped and not a snake in a human disguise (just go with it). . . this would clearly be discriminatory against people missing their left legg. But that doesn't mean that I am some how liable financially or legally! I just have a clumsy authentication system and need to improve it. If I don't, then the left legged people of my town will go somewhere else to get their dog washed.

    robi
  • Re:Turing test (Score:4, Interesting)

    by Elwood P Dowd (16933) <judgmentalist@gmail.com> on Wednesday July 02, 2003 @05:14PM (#6353201) Journal
    How is it the opposite of a Turing Test? The critical observer is www.hotmail.com, and the subjects are you, and some script from some spammer. www.hotmail.com is trying to guess who is a machine and who is not.

    These little distorted text images are cheap automated Turing Tests that work quite well for our current level of AI. What's your problem?
  • by reallocate (142797) on Wednesday July 02, 2003 @05:18PM (#6353257)
    What, exactly, have you done to "improve the conditions" of people?

    And why do you presume that assisting sightless people will inconvenience the seeing?

    (It's indicative of the smelly nature of /. that your post is tagged with a score of 5 and labeled "interesting". "Embarrassing" would be more appropriate.)
  • friends? (Score:4, Interesting)

    by 2MuchC0ffeeMan (201987) on Wednesday July 02, 2003 @05:20PM (#6353272) Homepage
    as far as i know, a) sites like yahoo are private, much like the boy scouts, they can discriminate. they will get bad press for it, but oh well.

    b) sites like yahoo could make a work around, you could call up for a username and password

    c) the turing test only has to be passed once. i've never had to pass it a second time, once i'm a verified human being i'm verified... so why can't the blind have someone do it for them the first time? it would even be cheaper than hiring a lawyer, exspecially for a case they are going to loose.
  • by Anonymous Coward on Wednesday July 02, 2003 @05:26PM (#6353336)
    If the choice is more spam and blind accessibility, or less spam and the blind are left out, then as a society we ought to choose the former.

    And as my proposal for a better solution is: "which of these things is not like the other", with some large secret DB of things and properties:

    cat - animal, carnivore, mammal, three-letter-word

    horse - animal, carnivore, mammal, five-letter-word

    shark - animal, carnivore, five-letter-word

    chair - furniture, seat, single-user, five-letter-word

    couch - furniture, seat, multi-user, five-letter-word

    desktop computer - gadget, single-user, two-word-phrase, office

    server - gadget, multi-user, six-letter-word, office

    keyboard - gadget, single-user, office, long-word

    whisk - gadget, single-user, kitchen, five-letter-word

    spoon - gadget, single-user, kitchen, five-letter-word

    (whisk, keyboard, couch, horse): which one of these is not like the others? Keyboard is not a five-letter-word. What about (whisk, keyboard, couch, cat): A cat is an animal. (spoon, server, shark, whisk): All but whisk start with s.

    Sure, bad guys could come up with their own DBs, but it will be tough to come up with the same set of attributes.

  • by crotherm (160925) on Wednesday July 02, 2003 @05:39PM (#6353452) Journal
    Instead of a graphic word, why not an audio word that has to be typed in by the user?

  • Wait a sec.... (Score:2, Interesting)

    by tuber (678236) on Wednesday July 02, 2003 @05:39PM (#6353458)
    Even more important than how blind people are inconvenienced, what about how mandatory image-recognition discriminates against people who use lynx?!?!
  • Re:Sound? (Score:5, Interesting)

    by arth1 (260657) on Wednesday July 02, 2003 @05:49PM (#6353564) Homepage Journal
    The problem with these approaches are that they are broken by design. They *assume* that humans are better at sensory pattern recognition than machines, be it visual or audible. That's doomed to fail, not only because of people having varying degrees of senses, but because computers *invariably* get better and better senses.

    So not only is this approach discriminatory, but a short-term measure that won't work in the long run.

    What IS unique to humans, that machines have little or no chance to emulate and master in the forseeable future? Abstractions, perhaps? Arts? Or humour? Trivia that can't easily be answered by a machine would be one way to go.

    To prove that you're human, answer this:

    - In Alice in Wonderland, Alice fell down into a?

    - Who's the boss of the strip of land south of Canada?

    - To gain access to this site,
    please identify,
    the type of verse this text is.

    - What would be an appropriate response to "Knock, knock"?

    - What's the air speed velocity of a coconut-laden swallow?

    Even better would be questions without fixed answers:

    - What's your name spelled backwards?

    - Who won yesterday's baseball match between the Mariners and the Mets?

    - How many points did NASDAQ rise or fall yesterday?

    - What's tomorrow's date? Please reply in the form "February 13, 2003"?

    Block for a minute every time there's a wrong answer, since people are prone to error, but might accept waiting a minute more than a machine would. Add new questions every day, and drop off old ones before they can be fed into machines by humans.

    And, most important, provide a human-to-human contact method as a fallback to prove your species, if everything else fails.

    Regards,
    --
    *Art
  • by silentbozo (542534) on Wednesday July 02, 2003 @05:50PM (#6353584) Journal
    Hmm, this brings up an interesting issue. Spam must really piss people off who use screen readers. Imagine having your screen reader trying to interpret "IfVSnh All To ols you need to ''b'uild your bi z we,bsite" or "Build your own casin0 and sportsb00k in just 10 minutes.". "Casin0" becomes "Cassin-Zero" and "sportsb00k" becomes "sportsba-zero-zero-kuh"
  • Re:Sooo.... (Score:3, Interesting)

    by MobiusKlein (58188) on Wednesday July 02, 2003 @06:04PM (#6353718)
    You're analogies are flawed.

    "My butcher isn't going to start a produce section for vegetarians"

    1) People are vegetarian by choice, not handicap.
    2) The vegetarian can still buy meat from the butcher, even if they don't want to eat it.
    3) The butcher, by being open to the public, has to serve the general public without practicing racial, religious, sexual, or handicap-based discrimination. (By law)
    4) The butcher has to provide _resonable_ accomadations to the handicapped. (By law.) He doesn't have to perform miracles.

    You might be surprized at the amount of stuff handicapped people do. I know a blind skier, so you can't know ahead of time which site need accessiblity. Half the rock musicians out there are deaf. (or at least tone deaf.)

    All they need to do is have a phone line / TTYD with a real live human on it for folks that can't see the test image. (Or something like that.)

    rbb
  • by weston (16146) <westonsd@@@canncentral...org> on Wednesday July 02, 2003 @06:08PM (#6353751) Homepage
    Although or blind and deaf, you're still out of luck.

    Which brings up a point... what're the only other senses left? Well, touch, taste, and smell. Taste and smell are probably not well suited to the interpretation of data... but we already know that touch can be. Braille and raised lettering on important signs is generally considered one mark of an accessible building. There's braille terminals even, as anyone who'se seen the movie Sneakers knows.

    So... why isn't there a tactile "braille" image renderer available? You've seen those toys with thousands of little small rods that you impress an object into, and the rods are displaced by it and on the other side you see (or feel!) an "image" of the object. Hook something like this up to an electromechanical device for lowering and raising the rods based on the intensity of a grayscaled image, and you've got a tactile image display. Accessibility problem solved. Even for blind/deaf folks.

    Now, once the smell-o-vision is invented, we can take it futher...
  • Re:Monitors. (Score:2, Interesting)

    by hazem (472289) on Wednesday July 02, 2003 @06:19PM (#6353834) Journal
    The way I see it, these little graphics/text things are for convenience. The mail provider gets to provide mail and can be reasonably sure that it's not a spammer's computer opening the account. The graphic means they don't have to have a full-time staff authenticating the person requesting the account.

    It seems that a simple solution would be to also provide a phone number someone could call (and read, using a braille web reader) to also activate the account.

    As you say, these images will only work for so long anyway.
  • Re:Case in point: (Score:2, Interesting)

    by NewWaveNet (584716) <me@austinheap.com> on Wednesday July 02, 2003 @06:44PM (#6354017) Homepage Journal
    Does anyone not remember that GUI stands for Graphical User Interface? Not Graphical unless your blind in which case everyone that makes products must make a suitable alternative that deviates from the pure meaning User Interface...I realize this may be politically incorrect, but you don`t see cars telling blind people ``TURN NOW!`` - Get real.
  • by Goldberg's Pants (139800) on Wednesday July 02, 2003 @07:00PM (#6354175) Journal
    I think it was Bill Maher that said "why does everybody have to do everything?" I mean seriously. Sure, sucks to be blind, but for the love of god, rather than whining about discrimination, COME UP WITH A BETTER IDEA to prevent bots registering.

    We'll ignore the obvious stupidity when it comes to filling forms in to start with. Surely blind people know SOMEONE who can see. It's not that hard to grab someone and say "can you type in what that says".

    I'm colourblind. The fire service where I used to live discriminated against me where I live by not hiring me due to my defective colour receptors, someone call a lawyer.

    I have a very rare form of colourblindness. My wife has to help with a lot of stuff involving colours (note that magic word, HELP), I failed to get into the air force due to this and my hearing... "Oh, someone call Lionel Hutz, I've been discriminated against..."

    I feel for the blind, I really do. I've had some blind acquaintances, but this is just ridiculous.

    Maybe I should sue someone because, by not being blind, I can't be a piano virtuoso like Stevie Wonder...
  • by Anonymous Coward on Wednesday July 02, 2003 @09:19PM (#6355042)
    Here at UNSW (Sydney, Australia) students had the problem of coming up with human-detecting text-only questions of this kind for an assignment in Computing 1A.

    Many of the solutions involved creative forms of l33t, many asked common-sense type questions, and the best ones were based on comprehension tests as described in earlier comments.

    There was one cool one I remember which presented a list of sentences, most of which were nonsense with psuedo-grammatical constructions, and the rest of which were convoluted but made sense. The reader was asked to pick which ones made sense. It 's not perfect but it's a cool idea.

    It's a really interesting problem.

  • New audio test (Score:1, Interesting)

    by Anonymous Coward on Thursday July 03, 2003 @02:16AM (#6356311)
    Maybe a computer can decipher letters by speech recognition, but it cannot reason like people.
    Why not an audio test such as:
    "What do you get if you add three to twenty five?"
    or something similar. It just needs to involve some thought but can still be very trivial for a human.

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