A man visited the official White House website to send a message to President Obama. At the bottom of a form he was asked, as part of the automated verify-you’re-a-human process, to type two squiggly words. The words? “Rape Baracks.”
If you just said, “Zoinks!” you’re probably not alone.
When we received the screengrab via e-mail, I thought it had to be fake. So I did my due diligence. I opened it in Photoshop and played with the levels, comparing it to screengrabs I took myself at the White House site. The lettering contained all the right stuff, including noise you can only see at extreme settings. I e-mailed the tipster, to find out more of the story.
“I am a plain citizen,” said Shemin Gau. “I have no intention to claim fame. I am just a Cisco engineer working hard in a cubicle in San Jose, California. You have my word, it is authentic.”
Gau told me that his intention was to write to the POTUS and to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton after hearing that his application for immigration for his brother in Taiwan was denied. “To my dismay,” he added in his e-mail to me, “the White House message only allows 2500 characters. That is not enough for me.”
The human verification technology that asks you to interpret squiggly words is known as CAPTCHA, or “Completely Automated Public Turing Test To Tell Computers and Humans Apart.” The program reCAPTCHA – embedded into sites the Web over, including whitehouse.gov – gets its squiggly words from old books that are in the process of being digitized. As computers scan the pages, they spit out words that cannot be identified using optical character recognition. These get dumped into a pile to be disseminated hundreds of millions of times per day, in, you guessed it, CAPTCHA tests on websites.
So, generally, you should feel good about verifying your humanity in this fashion – you are doubly sticking it to would-be robot overlords by helping to preserve the world’s knowledge, particularly that part at greatest risk of being lost forever. You should feel good, that is, unless the test asks you to type something that sounds something like sexual assault of our Commander in Chief.
Even though the isolated words aren’t inherently X-rated, there surely has to be a safeguard against profanity in these tests. To find out, I turned to Luis von Ahn, computer science professor at Carnegie Mellon and one of the inventors of CAPTCHA. “While we do very heavy filtering to prevent offensive combinations, sometimes things slip through,” he said in an e-mail, “since the system doesn’t actually know what one of the words is.” There’s the rub.
I went to the White House site myself to see if I could get equally lucky with some naughtiness. I refreshed the comment page over and over, and the most sinister thing I got was “mamorto Ejectment.” Sure it doesn’t mean anything to you, but to non-Muggles, that’s as blue as it gets.
Wilson Rothman, former Gizmodo features editor, is now deputy Technology & Science editor at msnbc.com, where he recently launched a daily feed of top tech stories called Technolog.