Webdriver Torso Follow Up
May 13, 2014

Webdriver Torso Follow-Up

I recently wrote a blog about mysterious goings-on on the Internet, following a coded tweet from the NSA, which turned out to be a clever way of asking people to consider a career with them. I also talked about Webdriver Torso, a strange and very large collection of videos on YouTube, all 11 seconds in length, consisting of red and blue boxes moving around the screen, accompanied by rudimentary music. Although resembling a very early video game, they also reminded me of numbers stations, which were broadcasts of number sequences used to deliver messages to spies particularly during the Cold War.

I since did some further research on Webdriver Torso and founds some theories – although none conclusive. The Guardian says “Isaul Vargas, a New York-based software tester, spotted the videos in a post on BoingBoing and recognised them from an automation conference he had been at a year ago. They were being shown by a European firm that made streaming software for set-top boxes, the kit that sits under a TV and connects to services such as Sky or Netflix.”

The company was basically just testing and improving its ability to upload digital videos efficiently. It is believed only a large organization could upload at these volumes, and this theory is in line with the almost 80,000 videos from Webdriver Torso.

Case cracked, it seemed. But the Guardian then went on to say that Vargas tracked down the presentation he saw and that, although similar, the videos were not quite the same. So although the theory of software testing is still the best guess, the people responsible remain a mystery. To add to the mystery (admittedly not as exciting a mystery as espionage or aliens, but a mystery nonetheless), a thousand videos into the series a short, six-second clip of the Eiffel Tower appears with a comment from the uploader: “Matei is highly intelligent.”

The Guardian tells us that “Assuming that Matei is the uploader, is based in France, and has a public profile, there are at least two possibilities: Basarab Matei, who works on image recognition at the University of Paris North (suggested by @DAddYE), and Matei Mancas, who works on attention modelling at the University of Mons in Belgium (suggested by @marquis).” They have contacted both for clarification, but have so far received no reply. This is now probably a job for Internet geeks rather than spying or UFO geeks, but interesting nevertheless.

After talking to a friend about Webdriver Torso, he directed me to a series of videos he had stumbled across that may have the same explanation — software testing — but are either cuter or spookier, depending on your point of view. Mine is the latter. Jose Munoz Navarro’s channel has a considerable number of videos, mostly with only one view, of different kinds of puppies wandering around a set background. It is possible that dog recognition software is being tested, but whoever Jose Munoz Navarro is, he has access to an impressively large collection of dogs. Another entertaining case of Internet weirdness, although I think we can rule out this one being the work of even the most inventive spy agency.

Image Credit: Thinkstock

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John is a freelance writer from the UK, currently living in Japan and thoroughly enjoying their food and whiskey. His first novel, Three Little Boys, and his travel book, Following Football, are currently available on Amazon.com.

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