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Google Buys reCaptcha, Gains Web Security Tool

Google's acquisition of open source security technology firm reCaptcha could help the search giant's Internet security, except against persistent hackers.

The acquisition was announced on Google's blog on Wednesday. reCaptcha's technology checks for human users on the Web by presenting text that's difficult for machines to recognize. The technology can be used for protection against malware and fraud, as well as thwarting spam. It can also be used to improve optical character reading of printed text, something that Google is involved with as part of its Google Books book-scanning project.

The text presented to users is called a "CAPTCHA," which is an acronym for "Completely Automated Public Turing test to tell Computers and Humans Apart." It's widely used when users forget their passwords, deactivate accounts and access information. CAPTCHA also helps protect comment sections on Web sites from machine-injected spam.

Some observers think that the Google reCaptcha investment could be a watershed moment as threats grow on the Internet. The acquisition shows that the company is seriously responding to the malware bot threat that can hijack or devalue Google's online offerings, according to Don Leatham, senior director of solutions and strategy at Lumension.

"As the industry continues to move to a software-as-a-service (SaaS) model, new security models need to meet threats that target the viability of the SaaS approach," Leatham said. "Expect to see all companies that have strong SaaS models to have to put their money where their SaaS mouth is by putting more resources and technology towards protecting SaaS business models."

CAPTCHA text can curtail spammers and keep phishers at bay for a time, but human ingenuity and smarter botnets could undo such technology. For this reason, Philip Lieberman, president of Lieberman Software, isn't impressed with the deal or the technology.

"As soon as sites implement CAPTCHA, the scammers can hire Third-World labor to visit the protected sites and fill out the forms by hand," Lieberman explained. "The more sophisticated scammers have developed artificial intelligence pattern recognition software, and audio options can also be broken with voice-recognition software."

The value of reCaptcha's technology will depend on how it affects "the economics of botnets," according to Mike Murray, vice president of professional services at Foreground Security.

"If Google becomes a harder target, the value of botnets theoretically goes down somewhat, and hackers will retrench," Murray said.

About the Author

Jabulani Leffall is an award-winning journalist whose work has appeared in the Financial Times of London, Investor's Business Daily, The Economist and CFO Magazine, among others.

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