My 10/21/07 Missoulian column: Did you miss the tickets? Blame ‘bots’
A “bot” – short for robot – is a software critter, a program that performs a task for a user.
Bots are very good at doing simple and repetitive tasks very quickly and, of course, without getting tired, so you can turn a bot loose on a job and go do something else.
You might have used a bot without knowing it. Personalized news alerts from Google or other sites are simple bots – sign in, enter the keywords of the subjects you’re interested in and the bot responds each day by e-mailing headlines and links.
Do you use the automatic bid function on eBay? That, too, is a basic bot. It watches the item you want and bids for it in the increment you want up to your maximum, then notifies you if you win.
Google and Yahoo use very sophisticated bots called “spiders” that traverse the Web and read sites in order to create their search indexes. Their bots are smart enough to exclude Web sites that aren’t relevant and obey cataloging restrictions that site owners set up.
If you play poker online, you might have heard of poker bots – programs that play hands for you to help you win and, possibly, make money. MSNBC has an interesting article about poker bots and how prevalent they are now.
Other bots can be very sophisticated and very close to home. If you’re not careful running anti-virus and anti-spyware programs on a Windows-based personal computer, it can be turned into a bot itself, under the control of a “bot herder” somewhere on the Internet who is using it to send spam and phishing e-mails. A herder also can use bots to flood a Web site with enough requests to cut in front of other users or even knock the site offline so no one can access it.
That’s basically where ticket bots come in. Ticket bots exist because they’re very good at repetitive tasks, like hammering away at ticket sites, and because the secondary ticket market – scalping – is a billion-dollar business.
Did you want tickets for last month’s Elton John show? The way all the online tickets sold in minutes, UM’s GrizTix site must have been hit by ticket bots. (There’s no way to be absolutely sure without looking at the server logs for the site.) Scalpers from all over the country got in on the action, knowing they could resell the tickets on eBay, StubHub and Craig’s List.
Things in the ticket world have gotten interesting in the last few months.
Ticketmaster, the largest ticket broker in the world, won a preliminary injunction in a lawsuit against RMG Technologies, a ticket bot software supplier on Oct. 15. (Read about the case at the Washington Post) Ticketmaster has known for some time that up to 80 percent of online ticket requests for popular shows originate from bots.
The lawsuit against RMG was filed before tickets were released for the current Hannah Montana tour, which resulted in a new controversy over online ticket sales and scalping. Hannah Montana tickets all over the country were snapped up in seconds and then available from scalpers minutes later for many times the original price, cutting the average teenager or family out of the market. (On StubHub, tickets for the Seattle show average $400.)
The reason for Ticketmaster’s legal action is that RMG Technologies had learned how to use software to act more like humans, which involves correctly responding to what’s called a “captcha.”
If you’ve done much buying or banking online, you’ve seen a captcha – it’s one of those little graphics with skewed and twisted letters and numbers. You have to read the contents of the box and type them in before you can finalize a purchase or log into your account. Captchas are supposed to be able to help Web sites differentiate between a bot and a person, because correctly reading a captcha with software is a very complex task.
At least it used to be.
According to news reports, RMG’s bots were able to decode the captchas and enter the correct letters and numbers, fooling the Web site into thinking they are humans. That’s big news because so many sites use captchas for security. While RMG Technologies’ Web Ticket Broker Tools site is now offline, it’s a good bet the software is still being used.
One possible solution to ticket bots has been proposed by a blogger at Salon.com. (Read the post at Salon.com) He suggested that ticket buyers be required to respond to simple, random questions about the show they want to see, such as the name of the performer or the name of their album, which could fool bots. But would that be too annoying for ticket buyers?
One solution has already been put in place, albeit for a very popular, one-of-a-kind ticket for the Led Zeppelin reunion concert next month in London. The BBC reports that the name of the winners of a lottery to be eligible to buy tickets must be the same as the name on the credit card used to pay for the tickets, because, as the promoter said, “I have no interest in supporting parasite businesses,” meaning scalpers. Such a verification system can be very expensive for the winners.
All I can conclude from this is that the show will go on, and bots will be buying most of the tickets for the foreseeable future.