A Weblog About Topics and Issues Discussed in the Book Spam Kings by Brian McWilliams

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November 22, 2004

Spam Kings on The Exchange

Laura Knoy Laura Knoy, host of The Exchange, had me on her show Monday to discuss Spam Kings. (RealAudio and Windows Media streams of the program are available here.) I've been doing a number of radio interviews about the book, but Laura and her producers at NHPR take the prize for conducting a well-researched and lively interview program. With the help of call-in listeners, we spent the 50-minute interview talking about everything from why people buy from spammers to Davis Hawke's remarkable career and the disappointing results of the US CAN-SPAM law.

Posted by Brian at 11:16 AM

November 19, 2004

Why the spam keeps coming

Forbes tech journalist Arik Hesseldahl has a column today about Spam Kings and the intractability of the spam problem. Arik observes, with some distress:

Despite all the claims by consumers that they are careful about what they buy over the Internet and from whom, there are still enough people out there willing to say, "Oh, what the heck," and whip out a credit card to buy a bottle of three pills meant to enhance their anatomy. For a spammer, it only takes a few suckers per message sent to make his business profitable.

That sentiment is shared by John Clayton, who writes a regular column for the Manchester Union-Leader (yes, that Union-Leader). When Clayton interviewed me about Spam Kings, he admitted that he was fed up with the way spam, pop-ups and other Internet garbage was intruding on his life.

"In the interest of full disclosure, I wont even attempt to feign disinterest or detachment. Instead, you should know that I approach todays assignment as one truly ticked-off typist," he writes in the Sunday Nov. 14 issue. Clayton then proceeds to compare spammers to cockroaches, and he bemoans the brown-wrapper crowd that keeps them in business.

Posted by Brian at 4:51 PM

Who's Spam Victim #2?

People have been amazed to hear that, according to Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer, Chairman Bill Gates (billg@microsoft.com, billgates@chairman.microsoft.com) gets nearly four million spams per day.
Presidential seal

"There are two people who probably are the number one spam recipients in the world," Ballmer reportedly said at a conference in Singapore. "Bill Gates (is first) because he is Bill Gates."

Ballmer apparently never went on to explain who the second-most-spammed person was, but I'm guessing it's President G.W. Bush (president@whitehouse.gov). While Google has indexed 4,373 web pages containing Gates' addresses, the president's addy is published on a whopping 66,200 pages.

(I'm assuming that since Google finds plenty of pages listing these addresses, spammers' harvesting bots have found them too.)

Then again, Bush might get some competion as #2 from the Federal Trade Commission's spam-reporting address. Uce@ftc.gov appears on 34,400 pages, according to Google, and the FTC says it receives 300,000 spam samples every day. (The agency is phasing out that address and wants people to begin using spam@uce.gov instead.)

Posted by Brian at 7:21 AM | Comments (2)

November 15, 2004

Spamhaus theme song

Steve Linford's `Copkiller' single

I kid you not. This country-western tune (2:23, 572 kb), "Tchaikovski's Destruction," features Spamhaus director Steve Linford on vocals. (The melody is loosely based on Tchaikovsky's Symphony No. 6; hence the name.)

As chapter four of Spam Kings recounts, Linford was a professional musician and music producer in Italy before becoming one of the world's most celebrated spam fighters. His talent caught the ear of composer Ennio Morricone, who used Linford as a vocalist on the soundtrack of the 1982 film Copkiller, directed by Roberto Faenza and starring Harvey Keitel and John Lydon (of Sex Pistols fame).

I managed to rustle up a DVD of the movie (released as Corrupt by Brentwood Home Video, 2002) and ripped the Linford vocal track. The audio quality isn't very good, and I doubt Linford considers it his best work. (Strangely, when the credits roll at the end of movie, Linford is listed simply as "Steve" -- no last name.) But the tune is still a fun listen. (The image above shows Linford's mug on the 45 rpm single.)

Posted by Brian at 6:31 PM

November 13, 2004

Spam blacklists threaten free speech?

I'm always puzzled when libertarian-leaning types characterize spam filters as a threat to free speech.

But the Electronic Frontier Foundation raises the censorship specter once again in a Nov. 12 white paper about collateral damage in the spam wars.

EFF logo The EFF reports that anti-spam blacklists and filters, such as SpamCop.net and Spam Assassin, sometimes wrongly block email from what the EFF calls "non-commercial email lists," including those run by MoveOn.org, Declan McCullagh, Bruce Schneier, and the EFF itself.

The authors of the EFF report, Cindy Cohn and Annalee Newitz, call for anti-spam services to adopt a set of "best practices" to ensure that "free speech must not fall victim to over-broad, ineffective filtering and blocking."

I can understand why some mailing list operators are frustrated by spam filters. Last year, emails from the Wesley Clark presidential campaign were mysteriously being blocked from my inbox until I configured my ISP's spam filters to stop using SpamCop. (SpamCop's filters are. I've learned, too aggressive for my tastes, but I still recommend it as a tool for reporting spam.)

Still, I don't understand how such incidents could be characterized as an incursion by my ISP or SpamCop on Wesley Clark's or my right to free speech.

The EFF report seems to lose sight of the fact that, as an email sender, your rights end at your recipient's network border.

Now, as an email recipient, if your spam filter isn't working right (it lets too much spam through, or blocks legitimate stuff), and configuration tweaks don't solve the problem, you can always seek a better filter. (I dropped SpamCop and started using Spamhaus instead.) If your ISP, and not you, controls the filter and won't make the desired changes, you can always switch ISPs.

Kudos to the EFF for publishing this report, and not simply filing a lawsuit, as some aggrieved victims have recently done.

As one email deliverability expert recently told me, there's a "flight to quality" underway in the world of spam blocking. End-users and ISPs are gravitating toward anti-spam services that are not only good at blocking spam but also are professionally run. That's the sort of market-based approach that you'd expect libertarians would advocate.

Posted by Brian at 7:36 PM

Spam confidential

PH-SK-sm.jpg There's a good synopsis of Spam Kings in the business section of the Portsmouth Herald. Business Editor Michael McCord really gets what the book is all about and presents some of the key issues in the battle against spam. I also recently did an interview with Alexandra Krasne, the editor of TechSoup.org, an online technology resource for non-profits. I attempt to answer her essential question "why do spammers spam?" with a somewhat strained analogy to bridge fishing. (Photo by Jackie Ricciardi.)

Posted by Brian at 8:48 AM

November 9, 2004

Bubba Catts and the Crank Callers

The battles between spammers and anti-spam activists are often fierce and bitter. But some "antis" maintain a sense of humor about their attempts to drive junk emailers off the Internet.

Chapter three of Spam Kings recounts a 1999 prank played on Louisiana spammer Bubba Catts by two unidentified telephone callers. An audio recording of the approximately three-minute phone call is available in MP3 format here.

In a March 2004 email interview, Catts said the recording was "heavily edited" in order to make it sound as if he was afraid. "If I DID for 1 minute THINK ...that 2 DRUNKS were coming over to `whup my ass,'I would have been MORE than HAPPY to OBLIGE THEM," wrote Catts.

Catts also claimed that the recording is "another example of ANTI LIES and DISTORTION of the TRUTH."

(Photo of Bubba Catts originally published at his website, Bayousouth.net.)

Posted by Brian at 7:29 AM

November 8, 2004

Recent media coverage

Several reviews and articles about Spam Kings have appeared in recent days.

The San Francisco Chronicle covered the book Monday in the paper's business section. Carrie Kirby's article provides a lively summary of some of the main topics of Spam Kings.

Stephanie Schorow of the Boston Herald published a good description of the book Saturday in the paper's arts and entertainment insert.

The latest issue of Netsurfer Digest also included a review of Spam Kings, which I'll post here in its entirety:

Every once in a while, we run across an item online that pries the lid off the shadowy world of spammers and how they operate. But those peeks are few and far between and seldom result in a coherent story about what is simultaneously an industry, a cultural phenomenon, and a criminal enterprise. Business and technology reporter Brian McWilliams wrote this book, the first full-length treatment which tries to do the topic justice. In tracking the exploits of spammers and those who fight them, McWilliams exposes the dirty details behind the spam business and gives us an insight into just what kind of people are involved on both sides of the conflict. This is not just a litany of the technical tricks spammers use - although there are good explanations of those for the non-technical reader - but is more a book-length cultural account of the spam industry, written in the style of a crime thriller. It's a fine overview of spam culture, and the best book on the subject so far.

Posted by Brian at 5:49 PM

November 4, 2004

Rewind with the time-travel spammer

By special arrangement with New York jazz-rock trio Groovelily, here's an mp3 file (5.8 Mb) of "Rewind," a tune inspired by spam king Robby Todino.

Also known as "the time-travel spammer," Todino is profiled in chapter ten of Spam Kings. From late 2001 until August 2003, he anonymously sent out over 100 million spams (one sample is here) in a quest for things such as "dimensional warp generators" and other gadgets for going back in time.

Lots of people thought it was a joke. But GrooveLily's Brendan Milburn found Todino's strange spams haunting.

"Tons of people ridiculed him and made fun of him in their blogs. I found his email amusing, but I also found some universal longing in his strange cry for help," Milburn told me in an email.

As chapter ten of Spam Kings explains, Todino was quite serious about his desire to rewind time. To finance his quest, he sent out millions of spams touting more ordinary junk, such as detective software and information about "free" government grants.

(Milburn's lyrics for "Rewind" are online here.)

Posted by Brian at 12:38 PM

November 3, 2004

Front-row seat at the Virgina spam trial

Author and anti-spam activist John Levine had a front-row seat at the recent spam trial in Virginia's Loudon District Court. Levine served as the prosecution's expert witness in the criminal case against Jeremy Jaynes (aka Gaven Stubberfield) and two accomplices.
Jeremy Jaynes booking photo

On Wednesday, a jury recommended that Jaynes be sentenced to nine years in prison for violating the state's anti-spam law.

Jaynes, 30, allegedly made millions of dollars from the spam operation, which prosecutors depicted as built on fraud. (Jaynes was convicted on three counts of sending e-mails with fraudulent and untraceable routing information.)

Jaynes' lawyers complained that the sentence was excessive compared to prison terms given to robbers and rapists.

At one point in the trial, a defense attorney called Levine a biased witness because of his work for the Anti-Spam Research Group. (Levine also graciously served as technical reviewer for Spam Kings.)

A judge will consider the jury's sentencing recommendation in February.

Leesburg Today, a Virginia paper, has been providing detailed coverage of the trial. (Stories are here, and here, with the sentencing covered here.)

Posted by Brian at 5:45 PM

November 1, 2004

Russian Denies Authoring "SoBig" Worm

Updated 11/2/04: Details on Ibragimov's denial are now available in this article at OReillyNet.

I spoke with Ruslan Ibragimov, owner of Russia-based Send-Safe, about an anonymously published document (a copy of which is here) that identified him as the author of SoBig, a computer worm that was rampant on the Internet in 2003.

Since SoBig was first identified in January 2003, experts have suspected that the worm was created in order to turn infected PCs into "Trojan" proxies that could be used to anonymously send spam. But the report pseudonymously by "Author Travis" is the first to publicly finger a specific spam operation as the source of the worm.

Ibragimov flatly denied the report and said Send-Safe has no connection to SoBig. He said the report was based on flimsy technical evidence.

Posted by Brian at 11:24 AM

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