Ticketmaster dumps reviled security technology that forces users to decipher distorted words. Will it spark a trend?

Mathew J. Schwartz, Contributor

February 1, 2013

4 Min Read

If those all-but-impossible-to-read Captchas disappeared tomorrow, would anyone lament their demise?

Ticketmaster is betting not. The company recently announced that it plans to dump its current challenge-and-response verification mechanism in favor of a system that asks users to type clearly legible phrases or answer multiple choice questions. The company's goal is to get event-goers to buy more tickets, while blocking automated software -- bots -- from buying up large quantities of tickets on behalf of resellers.

"We relentlessly pursue ways to make ticket buying more fan-friendly," said Nathan Hubbard, CEO of Ticketmaster. "While an important step in blocking bots, we know the current Captcha solution has been a frustrating part of buying tickets for fans."

Based on the word "capture," Captcha is an acronym for Completely Automated Public Turing test to tell Computers and Humans Apart. First developed at Carnegie Mellon University in 2000, Captchas are designed to allow a computer to tell if it's interacting with a real person or another computer.

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Why bother? As any fan of the cult film "Blade Runner" knows, when psychotic human-lookalike androids come calling, you'll need to know who's human and who's a machine.

Outside the dystopian science fiction realm, websites want to differentiate between real users and bots that have been programmed for malevolent purposes such as adding advertising spam to comment boards, registering for free email services and using them to send spam, spidering all usernames on a site, or, in the case of Ticketmaster, buying large quantities of tickets for the purpose of reselling them for a profit.

As security checks go, current Captchas count few -- and possibly zero -- supporters. That's largely because the typical Captcha, which requires a user to type in what they see on screen, displays phrases that look like they've been generated by a drunk Dadaist wielding a copy of Microsoft WordArt. Illegibility is just the start.

History is also littered with failed Captcha improvement efforts. For example, when changes to word-and-letter Captchas made them difficult for automated software to decode, enterprising attackers outsourced the job. Their ploy: websites that offered free porn after users navigated past a Captcha -- pulled, naturally, from the site attackers wanted to exploit. With a library of Captcha images and their real-world equivalents, attackers could bypass their target site's security defenses with aplomb.

Another attempted revamp has been audio Captchas. On the upside, these make websites with challenge-response systems accessible to people with visual impairments -- a legal requirement in some countries. But like their visual counterparts, many audio challenge-and-response systems can also be reliably circumvented by using software that converts spoken words to text.

So will Ticketmaster's Captcha revamp succeed? Ticketmaster said that its mobile apps will now include a push-notification feature that shares a user's Ticketmaster credentials with the company's site, thus allowing mobile users to bypass Captcha-type security checks. But the website security check strategy now being pursued by Ticketmaster involves a "Type-In," which -- wait for it -- is technically another type of Captcha, albeit one that uses clear, legible text. Developed by Solve Media, the approach substitutes squiggly letters with phrases or multiple-choice questions served up in a variety of different image and multimedia formats.

Ticketmaster has already been running trials with the Type-In system. "We're starting to see an uptick in fan satisfaction," Kip Levin, Ticketmaster's executive vice president of ecommerce, told the BBC. "We're happy with what we've seen from a security standpoint as well." He said that while the previous, squiggly Captcha took users an average of 14 seconds to successfully complete, the new system required only seven seconds.

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About the Author(s)

Mathew J. Schwartz


Mathew Schwartz served as the InformationWeek information security reporter from 2010 until mid-2014.

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