Tag Archives: outsourcing

Meatpuppet farming: the (dark) grey-hat global freelance job market

Compsec maven Brian Krebs rakes over the findings of University of California, San Diego research report into the online market for what I like to call meatpuppets: cheap human labour-on-the-web that gets leveraged for bypassing the security systems that are supposed to stop automated spammers.

“The availability of this on-demand, for-hire contract market to do just about anything you can think of means it’s very easy for people to innovate around new scams,” said Stefan Savage, a UCSD computer science professor and co-author of the study.

The UCSD team examined almost seven years worth of data from freelancer.com, a popular marketplace for those looking for work. They found that 65-70 percent of the 84,000+ jobs offered for bidding during that time appeared to be for legitimate work such online content creation and Web programming. The remainder centered around four classes of what they termed “dirty” jobs, such as account registration and verification, social network linking (buying friends and followers), search engine optimization, and ad posting and bulk mailing.

“Though not widely appreciated, today there are vibrant markets for such abuse-oriented services,’” the researchers wrote. “In a matter of minutes, one can buy a thousand phone-verified Gmail accounts for $300, or a thousand Facebook ‘friends’ for $26 – all provided using extensive manual labor.”

The evolving marketplace is best illustrated by the market for services that mass-solve CAPTCHAs — those agglomerations of squiggly numbers and letters that webmail providers and forums frequently require users to input before approving new accounts. The researchers found that the market for CAPTCHA-solving was fostered on freelancer, but quickly expanded into custom markets when the model proved profitable on a large scale. Today, there are plenty of commercial services that pay pennies per day to low-wage workers in India and Eastern Europe to solve these puzzles for people wanting to create huge numbers of accounts at one time.

It’s interesting to see massive crowds of human labour getting rolled quite effectively into these vast and largely automated systems: the darkside equivalent of Amazon’s Mechanical Turk, with a smattering of Matrix metaphors on the side. But those digital peons are just trying to make a living, and when you look at the prices being charged for Twitter followers by the thousand and factor in the significant cut being taken by the service aggregators, you realise that they’re probably not making much more than sweatshop wages. Which means that until the massive differential in income between developed and developing nations gets narrower, web security procedures will always be subject to this sort of outsourced brute-forcing. Shorter version: spam ain’t going anywhere anytime soon.

The irony of having blocked five fake Twitter accounts in the time it took me to write this post is palpable. Death, taxes, noise*, spam.

[ * Anyone who’s worked in the recording or music industries will tell you that noise is the third certainty of life. As, I suspect, will anyone who has lived in a block of flats. ]

What’s cheaper than outsourcing to the developing world*?

Easy: outsource to the metaverse. Wagner James Au of New World Notes points to a post by software guy Max Klein, who discovered the cheapest way to get native-speaker translation work done is to offer it to Second Life’s polyglot clades of regular residents:

How did I reduce my cost from $9000 to $46? No, I didn’t do it by brainstorming or by being clever – but by a chance discovery as I was reading the BBC news website: I found an article about the second life economy.

Second life is filled with people who want Linden Dollars. They come from all over the world, and for them it’s just a game. They will willingly spend 30 minutes to translate the article for you for 20cents, which is 50 Linden $. For that, they can get accessories, funiture, clothes etc. within the game.

For them it’s easy work that allows them get something from within the game. For me, it’s an insanely cheap native language translation to languages like french, italian, etc.

A chance discovery, a few days getting used to the game, and I saved myself $8950 bucks.

And thanks to Mister Klein, I now have a new idea for how to make my name in the metaverse: I’m gonna start the first virtual union. 😉

More seriously, though, I can see how starting some sort of employment bureau in SL for this sort of work could be a real moneyspinner; where there are savings margins of the scale that Klein is claiming, there’s plenty of space for middlemen. Things have been quiet on the metaverse front, at least as far as meatspace news is concerned, but a goldrush on those low low wages is sure to look very appealing to cash-strapped meatspace businesses…

[ * This title ignores the proposition that SL and other metaverse realities are, in some respects, developing nations themselves… ]

The new face of globalisation: outsourced childbearing and international water shipments

Globalisation is a highly politicised word, but I’m increasingly thinking of it as a phenomenon rather than a project (the same way I think about postmodernism, as it happens). In a nutshell, globalisation is the trend toward global movement of things: people, ideas, jobs, money, resources. It’s an economic phenomenon, sure, but it’s increasingly social as well – not social as in “social media” (though thet’s a part of it), but as in the ongoing corrosion of geography erasing a lot of old ideas about who we do business with, what we consider to be business, and why we do it.

Take outsourcing. It’s an established idea to take a job like coding PHP and giving it to someone in a poorer country so you (theoretically, at least) get the same results for less expenditure, but what about a “job” like carrying your baby to term [via MetaFilter]?

“In the U.S. a childless couple would have to spend anything up to $50,000,” Gautam Allahbadia, a fertility specialist who helped a Singaporean couple obtain a child through an Indian surrogate last year, told Reuters.

“In India, it’s done for $10,000-$12,000.”

Fertility clinics usually charge $2,000-$3,000 for the procedure while a surrogate is paid anything between $3,000 and $6,000, a fortune in a country with an annual per capita income of around $500.

But the practice is not without its critics in India with some calling it the “commoditisation of motherhood” and an exploitation of the poor by the rich.

“It’s true I’m doing this for money, but is it also not true that a childless couple is benefiting?” said Rituja, a surrogate mother in Mumbai, who declined to give her full name.

For the surrogates — usually lower middleclass housewives — money is the primary motivator.

For their clients it’s infertility or — some claim — educated working women turning to hired wombs to avoid a pregnancy affecting careers.

And how about natural resources? We’re used to the idea of scarce commodities being shipped around at scary prices, but as populations (and their footprints) increase, some resources that we think of as givens become valuable enough to justify the overheads of stuffing them in a tanker and floating them across the globe. Water, for instance [also via MetaFilter]:

Sitka, a small town located on Baranof Island off Alaska’s southeast coast, will sell the water to Alaska Resource Management for one penny per gallon. S2C and True Alaska Bottling, which has a contract for the rights to export 2.9 billion gallons (10.9 billion liters) per year from Sitka’s Blue Lake Reservoir, formed Alaska Resource Management LLC to facilitate bulk exportation.

The city will earn $US26 million per year if ARM exports its entire allocation, and more than $US90 million annually if the city can export its maximum water right of 9 billion gallons. That amount of water is enough to meet the annual domestic needs of a city of 500,000 using 50 gallons per person per day.

Nice idea, at least on paper… but it makes the erroneous assumption that one can just keep taking [x] amount of water from an area, swap it for money and not experience any problems. A friend of mine who works in water treatment and reclamation here in the UK is at pains to point out to anyone who’ll listen that water is shaping up to be the new oil: essential to everyone’s survival, increasingly scarce and expensive, and the sort of thing that people will go to war over…. not only in developing nations, but right here in the privileged West, too.

When I’m having an optimistic day, I find myself thinking that increasing awareness of the finite limits of resources (human labour and skills and time very much included) will gradually push us toward a closer form of global unity: a recognition that we’re all in the same boat, and that the boat only has so much in the way of provisions, and that between us we can sail it pretty much anywhere. Of course, that won’t happen unless we work together to overcome geopolitical and economic barriers… which is why on my less optimistic days the boat metaphor tends to end with a hull full of corpses.

Small-g globalisation isn’t a bad thing; as borders become permeable, it’s an inevitability, like a thermodynamics of things. But the project of Big-G Globalisation is a different thing entirely: it’s a crude, rough-handed and successful attempt to profiteer from restricting and manipulating that ineluctable movement of things, performed by those who already have sufficiently rarified levels of power to influence the flow. The phenomenon of globalisation should be encouraged, supported and monitored; I believe it’s essential to the long-term survival of humans as a species. The project of globalisation needs to be exposed, deconstructed and shut down; it’s an ethical black hole baited with conspicuous consumption and confirmation bias, and it’s killing millions for the benefit of hundreds.

*steps off of soapbox*

Globalisation is still going just fine for the big boys, thanks

Everyone’s suffering from the economic downturn, right? Well, not quite everyone; the really big corporations – the ones like IBM who are truly globalized – are doing just fine… and they’re managing it largely through detaching themselves from their parent nation-states, such as the US.

IBM’s world view has meant that hardware is an increasingly small portion of its revenue. It no longer makes personal computers, having sold its ThinkPad division to China’s Lenovo; higher-end servers now constitute only a quarter of its business. The rest is in software and consulting, which are increasingly based outside the U.S., making IBM less sensitive to the U.S. economy even as it remains—technically—an American company. IBM remains highly profitable. In the first six months of 2009, it earned nearly $6 billion in profits, even as the U.S. economy contracted sharply. This past quarter, about two thirds of its revenue came from outside the U.S., and that percentage is growing.

Some of the effects are undoubtedly negative for the U.S. Thousands of IBM employees have recently been offered a choice between losing their jobs in America or moving abroad to stay employed. Companies that once were icons of American power—like IBM and General Motors—will thrive only if they become more wedded to the world and less to the U.S. GM itself is a perfect example of what works and what doesn’t, with a U.S. division that failed and a Chinese division that is wildly successful. A world with more strong foreign markets means less money spent on labor and operations in the U.S., and more spent elsewhere. Companies like Intel and Microsoft are investing billions in R&D facilities in China because they believe that is where their future is.


IBM is hardly the only example of global business detaching from the U.S. Other technology and consulting companies such as HP and Accenture are charting similar paths. Firms in other industries have moved away from the U.S. altogether, most notably oil-services company Halliburton. Having been reviled in the U.S. for allegedly overcharging the U.S. military in Iraq, it decamped to Dubai, where no one cares. In fact, there is hardly an industry other than utilities that is not seeing its most significant growth outside the U.S. That was true before the crisis, but it is even more clear in financial results this year. In 2006 about 43 percent of the profits of the S&P 500 came from outside the U.S. In 2009 that percentage is poised to surpass 50 percent.

This is the new world of global business, one in which the U.S. becomes simply a market among markets, and not even the most interesting one. IBM is one of the multinationals that propelled America to the apex of its power, and it is now emblematic of the process of creative destruction pushing America to a new, less dominant, and less comfortable position.

Another nail in geography’s coffin. As more nation-states slip into “failed” status – and depending on where you’re looking from, none of them are completely safe from that prospect, no matter how large or formerly powerful – the durability and mobility of the corporation will start to look more appealing to career politicos and rootless would-be citizens alike. Why sign up for citizenship when a zaibatsu-style contract offers you more benefit and opportunity?

Is the economic future of the US that of client status to multinational corporations? [via SlashDot]