By Andrew Ross
In order to understand this story, one must first know the setting.
There is a war going on right now, one being fought all over the world. It is being waged against spammers, people who are the reason you dare not go more than a day or two without checking your email. But why all the fuss, why are the anti-spam allies up in arms?
As insignificant as each individual spam message may seem, the fact is there aren’t individual spam messages, but rather massive armadas of them. Millions upon millions are sent daily, promoting get-rich-quick schemes, hawking “as seen on TV” inventions, pushing pharmaceuticals, and peddling all manner of smut.
Without the diligent efforts of email providers and other anti-spam forces, the very arteries of the Internet could become so overloaded by the deluge of unwanted sales-pitches that the flow of information would slow to a crawl, and using the ‘net would no longer be a worthwhile endeavor.
This is the story of a single battle in the war on spam. As we join the story, the war is not over yet, but it is not going well. As things stand, it seems almost certain the smut-peddlers shall win the day.
I became involved in this conflict when I started receiving spam messages with a brief quote at the top and at the bottom. I soon noticed a pattern emerging: all the spam messages which made it past the filters had quotes in them, and the quotes talked about swords, kings, horses, and Danes. They also contained very distinctive names, such as Yrling and Gyric, and words like “ceorls” and “thegn.” I started collecting the text before clicking the messages into oblivion, thinking that I might be able to figure out where the text came from.
After I had collected about five pages worth of filter foiling text, I decided to run some of the names through Google, just to see if anything turned up. To be honest, I was kind of hoping the Google results would be inconclusive, and that I’d end up having to ply the stacks in order to find the source material. But, half an hour into my search, I found The Circle of Ceridwen, Octavia Randolph’s copyrighted novel set in 9th century England, “at the height of the Viking incursions.”
As it turns out, Randolph has the full text of the novel– which is actually a very good read– on her website, Octavia.net. She was apparently already aware that her Viking- era novel was, ironically, being pillaged. On a page titled “Have You Received Spam Containing Text From This Website,” she says it was brought to her attention that “one or more pornographers are stealing copyrighted text from this website,” apologizes to the recipients, and urges them to forward her the message “so we might continue to pursue these scoundrels.”
Randolph and her webmaster, Jonathan Gilman, were both eager to answer my questions.
Having perused much of her website, I was not surprised to see the words, “Leof Andrew (hailing you in Old English),” at the top of Randolph’s reply. She was certainly unimpressed with the whole situation, writing “the fact that my stolen text is being used to embed pornographic images is profoundly disturbing to me.”
I had asked what she was doing in response to the theft, so she explained she had contacted Boston Globe technology writer Hiawatha Bray for advice, as well as the legal department of The Authors Guild. Both were “very sympathetic, but completely stumped as to how the pornographers could be stopped.”
Meanwhile, Gilman was trying track the interlopers by the domains used to host the porn images. Although he has not found the thieves, he does think he has sufficient evidence to force the Domain Registrar to refuse to host their site. The Domain Registrar is the company which licenses the domain name to a website, the domain name basically being the URL of the site’s homepage.
In March, the porn was on a site registered through Register.com, and Gilman found what appears to be the real registration info for the people behind this site through Register.com’s WHOIS database. However, when Gilman talked to Register.com, they informed him the site had since shut down. The operation had moved to a site registered through Dotster.com, so he did not contact the administrator of the first website.
The second website proved to be a dead end. Even though it was still in use when Gilman looked it up, Dotster.com has been categorically unhelpful. Their WHOIS database had an entry for the site in question, and the database disclaimer says that “the company believes the data to be reliable.” However, it doesn’t take an expert to figure out that “super speedy” from “N/A, N/A, 123456,” is probably not a real person. This is not totally illegitimate, since one can change one’s own information in the database; but according to Gilman, the registrar has to know who they really are. Regrettably, he says it is impossible to talk to someone from Dotster.com on the phone (all correspondence is via email), and they have not responded to his email inquiries.
Gilman also noted, with regards to why Octavia.net might have been chosen as the victim, that “The Circle of Ceridwen does lend itself to this since it has a regular directory layout… and then I guess they just scan for words they like and extract from there.” Perhaps it was a crime of opportunity, or perhaps the thieves were drawn in by the novel’s pitch: “Young women with courage. Swords with names. Vikings with tattoos. Danger. Passion. Survival. Warfare. Sheep. And Other Good Things… ” In either case, it seemed as though the evil hordes would win this battle, storming over the keep and bogging down the internet.
However, even though Octavia.net was looted, and many rounds of spam were fired into the inboxes of the world, at the end of the day the attack was repulsed. The vigilant forces of good, alerted by users who reported the spam instead of just deleting it, adapted their defenses to repel the new menace. It has now been over a week since the last of these messages landed in the inbox instead of the bulk folder.
This battle has been won, but the war rages on. Every time the anti-spam programmers figure out how to stop one type of spam, the spammers devise a new method to defeat the filters. Much like the fight against drug-resistant bacteria, there is no end in sight to this conflict. Like the fight against germs, this is also a beef we can’t afford to drop.