Vulnerabilities / Threats
8/18/2010
05:52 PM
Connect Directly
Google+
Twitter
RSS
E-Mail
50%
50%
Repost This

Researcher Cracks ReCAPTCHA

Homegrown algorithms for cheating Google's reCAPTCHA released earlier this month

A researcher earlier this month demonstrated how he solved Google's reCAPTCHA program even after recent improvements made to the anti-bot and anti-spam tool by the search engine giant.

Chad Houck, an independent researcher, also released the algorithms he wrote to crack reCAPTCHA. Houck had published a white paper on the hack prior to presenting his research at Defcon in Las Vegas, and says that Google made several fixes to reCAPTCHA that defeated several of his algorithms before he was scheduled to give his presentation. He then quickly came up with a few additional approaches with his algorithms, and says he was able to beat the updated reCAPTCHA 30 percent of the time.

"[ReCAPTCHA] has never been wholly secure. There are always ways to crack it," says Houck, whose algorithms have been available online since Defcon. "The information [about the research] is out there. Google still hasn't changed it, which kind of surprises me."

Google, however, thus far has not seen any signs of this being actively used in the wild.

A Google spokesperson says the company had strengthened the verification words in the program both before and after Houck's paper was published. "We introduced changes both before and after its appearance to improve the strength of our verification words," the spokesperson says. "We've found reCAPTCHA to be far more resilient while also striking a good balance with human usability, and we've received very positive feedback from customers. Even so, it's good to bear in mind that while CAPTCHAs remain a powerful and effective tool for fighting abuse, they are best used in combination with other security technologies."

ReCAPTCHA, which was originally created by Carnegie Mellon University and later purchased by Google, basically protects websites from bots and spam by generating distorted text or words that humans can read, but software or optical character readers cannot. The words used by the reCAPTCHA program come from books that are being digitized. The program, which runs on many major websites as a way to validate that the user on the site is a human and not an automated bot or spammer, presents the user with two real words to type into a box, one of which is for verification and the other for digitization purposes.

Houck's hack works using a combination of his own algorithms, including one that decodes the "ribboning" protections reCAPTCHA uses to mask the words from software, a homemade OCR, and a dictionary attack.

He says the weakness of the reCAPTCHA program are in the way it's designed. "It presents two words, one for verification and one for digitization," he says. "Every time someone types the verification word correctly, [the program] assumes they also typed the digitization word correctly."

Google's latest tweaks to the program took out what Houck calls the "inverted blob," or ellipses that help mask the text from bots, and increased the vertical ribboning and dilatation of the text, which positions the characters so they overlap slightly and aren't easy to segment, he says. "[But] I solved that," he says. "So all of their security features are flawed."

His so-called "blanket algorithm" basically straightens out the text so it's machine-readable. "And it segments the characters and gets run through the OCR," which scans them, he says. "I also used a dictionary attack, which makes it a lot more efficient."

Houck says he emailed recaptcha.net about his research, but never got a reply.

Just how difficult would it be for a bad guy to exploit this? "As long as you know how to program well enough, it would take a day to implement my algorithms," he says.

Have a comment on this story? Please click "Discuss" below. If you'd like to contact Dark Reading's editors directly, send us a message.

Kelly Jackson Higgins is Senior Editor at DarkReading.com. She is an award-winning veteran technology and business journalist with more than two decades of experience in reporting and editing for various publications, including Network Computing, Secure Enterprise Magazine, ... View Full Bio

Comment  | 
Print  | 
More Insights
Register for Dark Reading Newsletters
White Papers
Cartoon
Latest Comment: LOL.
Current Issue
Video
Slideshows
Twitter Feed
Dark Reading - Bug Report
Bug Report
Enterprise Vulnerabilities
From DHS/US-CERT's National Vulnerability Database
CVE-2013-6212
Published: 2014-04-19
Unspecified vulnerability in HP Database and Middleware Automation 10.0, 10.01, 10.10, and 10.20 before 10.20.100 allows remote authenticated users to obtain sensitive information via unknown vectors.

CVE-2013-6213
Published: 2014-04-19
Unspecified vulnerability in Virtual User Generator in HP LoadRunner before 11.52 Patch 1 allows remote attackers to execute arbitrary code via unknown vectors, aka ZDI-CAN-1833.

CVE-2013-6214
Published: 2014-04-19
Unspecified vulnerability in the Integration Service in HP Universal Configuration Management Database 9.05, 10.01, and 10.10 allows remote authenticated users to obtain sensitive information via unknown vectors, aka ZDI-CAN-2042.

CVE-2013-6215
Published: 2014-04-19
Unspecified vulnerability in the Integration Service in HP Universal Configuration Management Database 10.01 and 10.10 allows remote authenticated users to execute arbitrary code via unknown vectors, aka ZDI-CAN-1977.

CVE-2013-6218
Published: 2014-04-19
Unspecified vulnerability in HP Network Node Manager i (NNMi) 9.0x, 9.1x, and 9.2x allows remote attackers to execute arbitrary code via unknown vectors.

Best of the Web