* This is Part 1 of a three-part column. Come back next Sunday for Part 2.
It’s almost go time.
You’re at your computer with six open browser tabs, all on the Ticketmaster website. As the clock ticks towards 10 a.m., you nervously cycle between the tables clicking “refresh.”
In other parts of town, three friends are doing exactly the same thing, part of a carefully coordinated attempt to get tickets to that big concert.
All of you are staring at the flashing numbers in the corner of the screen: 09:59:57…09:59:58…09:59:59…go!
Your fingers are a blur as you mash through all the open tabs, hoping to connect. Click-click-click.
Still nothing. Panic sets in as you steal a glance at the clock ticking away, knowing that with each flash of the cursor, your chances of getting a ticket decrease exponentially.
Then at 10:01:47, one of the tabs scores a hit. You’re in!
Except you’re not. The only reason you were able to connect was because the website now displays a message saying the concert is sold out.
You reel in disbelief. Thousands of tickets were sold in a matter of seconds? How was that even possible?
And thus ends yet another frustrating encounter with the ultra-murky universe of selling concert tickets, an alternate dimension where nothing is as it seems, a place where reality is twisted and manipulated by supernatural forces with powers exceeding even those of the Illuminati.
Buying stuff is usually pretty simple. We identify a desired item, note the price and then decide whether we’re willing to pay that amount. If we do, the seller is paid, we collect our purchase and go on our way. We conduct these sorts of transactions every day, be it for a cup of coffee, a bag of groceries, or a fill-up for the car. In the vast majority of these interactions, what you see is what you get because everything is transparent.
Now think about the last time you tried to buy concert tickets. Compare that experience with a normal everyday purchase. I’m going to guess that you just had an unpleasant physiological reaction.
Why does the concert ticket experience have to be so awful? Why is this particular marketplace so screwed up? Why doesn’t anyone, like, do something about it?
Time to expose the truths behind one of capitalism’s most opaque activities, starting with the bots.
In a non-descript strip mall somewhere in Toronto, more than 600 modems wait for tickets for concerts, theatre productions and sporting events to go on sale. A millisecond after the appointed time, the modems pound Ticketmaster nodes with attempts to buy tickets using software that can match Ticketmaster’s lightning-fast ability to complete transactions.
Thousands of tickets are sucked up in a matter of seconds, creating a near-instant sellout. Just minutes later, those tickets start appearing on secondary ticket-selling websites like StubHub or classified services like Craigslist and Kijiji for prices that are often multiples of their face value. Meanwhile, us carbon-based lifeforms are left wondering how they missed out.
Blame the bots — computer programs that automate the entire process of buying tickets online. This software has become so sophisticated that it can fill out a typical set of Ticketmaster dropdown fields in milliseconds, a task that would take a human at least 10 seconds. The bots can also make thousands of simultaneous requests to Ticketmaster using thousands of different IP addresses. Try that on your laptop.
Watch: Winnipeg police arrest scalpers ahead of Tragically Hip concert
Ken Lowson is often called the Father of the Ticket-Buying Bot. Around the turn of the century, when Ticketmaster and other sellers were just getting into the business of selling tickets online, Lowson, already running a company called Wiseguy that specialized in acquiring hard-to-get tickets, began looking for ways to beat the new systems.
He found a 17-year-old programmer in Bulgaria who understood that computers could be much faster than humans when it came to following all the purchase prompts displayed on the screen.
The collaboration was a success. Wiseguy was soon vacuuming up tickets to big shows all over North America, selling some directly to clients and wholesaling others to brokers and scalpers. All of the tickets made their way to the general public at grossly-inflated prices.
Wiseguy made $2.5 million alone on a 2005 U2 tour, partly by spending $200,000 to buy 5,000 memberships in U2’s fan club, an organization that gave fans early opportunities to buy tickets. These were super-exclusive general admission tickets for spots up close to the stage. They were supposed to go to members of the fan club at a discount. They ended up being sold to those willing to pay scalpers’ prices.
Bot programmers have even figured out how to get past CAPTCHA security challenges, those windows where you’re supposed prove your humanity by manually typing in the distorted letters and numbers displayed in a box — images that bots supposedly can’t read.
You’d think that Ticketmaster and other sellers would use a near-infinite number of characters in those boxes, but that wasn’t the case.
Lowson and his programmers discovered that Ticketmaster used only about 30,000 combinations for CAPTCHA solutions. Wiseguy simply copied every combination as a .jpeg file and entered all of them into a database for the company’s computers. After that, their bots had little trouble breaking through using brute force codebreaking. And according to Lowson, Ticketmaster didn’t update those 30,000 combinations for years.
(CAPTCHA codes aren’t what they used to be, either. Ask any programmer about the strides made in optical character recognition and artificial intelligence.)
Wiseguy was eventually busted by the FBI and shut down, but others looking to beat Ticketmaster’s online system had already started their own businesses. Today, a Google search will turn up dozens of sites willing to sell you bot software.
It took me literally five seconds to connect with something called Ticketmaster.com Spinner Bot. “Works for drop checking, presales, on sale events, everything! Old price: $1,800. Now $990.”
If you’re even more ambitious, there’s the All Bots Package, which is every bot from this particular seller for $12,000 — a bargain, considering that if you were to buy every bot individually, the price would be $95,000.
Governments in Ontario, Alberta, B.C., Saskatchewan and Manitoba are all looking at or have passed anti-bot laws, but operators can simply move outside those territorial jurisdictions. The Internet knows no borders.
Still, it’s a fight worth taking on. Patti-Anne Tarlton, chief operating officer of Ticketmaster Canada, told me that the company is throwing plenty of technology at the problem and has implemented measures like its verified fan program. Success has been hit and miss, but progress against bots has been made.
“It’s an ongoing arms race. We continue to fight and invest millions,” Tarlton told me in an interview that I turned into an article for the Globe and Mail. “Last year alone , we combatted five billion bots in North America. There’s continued investment – data science, machine learning – so we can, in real time, not have the bots circumvent the system, and make those tickets available to real fans.”
You might ask why can’t we just can’t go back to the old days of lining up for tickets? That’s a question for part two of this series.
Alan Cross is a broadcaster with 102.1 the Edge and a commentator for Global News.
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