Wednesday, 18 December 2013

Beware of Google Chatbots

You are checking your email on Google when suddenly a chat request from some unknown email address appears in your Google Chat listing. Curious, you accept the invitation, wondering if it is perhaps someone you know. The user's profile pic shows a somewhat provocative female, but unrevealing, and has no face to allow easy identification. The chat starts off with "What's Up" or "How Ya Doing". You reply "Do I know you?" and she quickly replies about how "lonely" she is and is looking to have some "fun". You decline with a "Sorry I'm not interested" and get bombarded with more replies and requests, increasingly of a sexually explicit nature, and inviting you to visit a webcam for more interaction.

As you ask her about how she got your email and repeatedly explain that you are not interested, you are met with more and more of what seem to be "canned" answers. You start to suspect something odd about the interaction. It soon becomes apparent that the other person is not interacting or understanding you at all. You, my friend, are another victim of a "Chatbot", a clever artificial-intelligence program designed to simulate human chat and which is spamming unsuspected Gmail user accounts.

In our increasingly interconnected social-network-based world, sites such as Google (which integrate chat functionality and other features into email) can be targeted by clever "bots" or computer programs which spam other random Gmail users to start chats. The chats appear to be designed to entice users to cam sites which then ask for money. Fortunately, it is easy to block and disable each individual bots. Once you realize what is happening, it is easy to recognize the signature profile information before even opening the chat (which typically has no personal detail, and shows a faceless but provocative female figure). However, there is currently no way to block all external chat requests (as far as I know) so if you get asked to add an unknown email address to your chat listing, simply ignore it.

On the other hand, you can also have some fun with these chatbots. Next time you get a chat request on Gmail from an unknown person, enter into a conversation and see how long it takes you to realize that you are speaking to a computer. Try to outwit the computer or discuss something that you believe only another human should know. Be polite, don't offend (just in case it is a real person - which is unlikely), but do get a first-hand experience of how sophisticated these newer chatbot algorithms can be. And maybe if you are really lonely, you may actually enjoy the interaction. But don't blame me if you end up getting spammed more and more!

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