Charles Arthur On Technology - Science - News - The Independent

Charles Arthur On Technology

A spammer in the works

As you read these words, an electronic rain is falling endlessly around the Web, falling onto the millions of blogs set up by eager, well-meaning people who want to air their views and let other people comment on them.

As you read these words, an electronic rain is falling endlessly around the Web, falling onto the millions of blogs set up by eager, well-meaning people who want to air their views and let other people comment on them.

The rain falls on the most praised and the most ignominious, the most important and the most trivial. It's generated by spammers, who have only one purpose - which they follow with the fixedness of any parasite - and that is to boost the Google rankings of their spam sites.

Here's how it works. You start a blog. You decide that it would be good to allow your readers to comment on the things you say; after all, they've read it, so why not let them give their insight (which might be greater than yours)? So you make it feasible for anyone who reads the page to write a comment. No registration, no clicking on a link. Just type some text, click on a button, and there's the comment.

But here's the reality: pretty soon a spammer will find your blog and begin posting junk on it, using automated systems working far faster than any number of people.

Take my own as a typical example. The first post was on Wednesday 7 July. The first comment came on a post made two days later. The first attempted spam came on 20 July, attempting to "comment" on an old post. The content was junk - multiple links to a site selling cigars, US visas, and an online flower shop. It came from a broadband PC in Israel, one I'm sure had been taken over by a hacker and hired out to a spammer to run a program that would post spam onto blogs.

That was the first drop of rain. Now it's a steady drizzle. Last weekend, the various defences I have against junk comments blocked about 1,000 attempts to post spam. They come from all over the world: Korea, Australia, Britain, the US, a Bulgarian ISP (or one of its customers) and what appears to be the ministry of something-or-other ("Ministerstvo spravedlnosti") in the Czech Republic.

How do I know where the attempts come from? The blog server records the IP address - in effect, the caller ID of the computer trying to post the spam - which can then be compared against a global database of ISPs and which addresses they provide services to.

What's more interesting is why spammers want to post irrelevant rubbish onto blogs, even to posts that are no longer visible. They have two reasons, both to do with search engines. Google treats blogs as more important than "normal" websites, because blog content changes so much more quickly. A blog might have new posts perhaps a dozen times a day, with fresh links to websites that had previously been overlooked. So the "Googlebot" (the software program that sniffs around the Web to see where links are being made) often returns to blogs. Secondly, the Googlebot looks for changed information on the website; even though a comment might have been made on a post that nobody is reading, the webserver tells the Google index that something has happened there, and Google adds the comment and its associated links to the index.

Result, for the spammer: an unprotected blog is a splendid way to promote yourself in Google's index to push pointless (but profitable) pursuits such as online poker or "dieting" drugs. Many people don't realise their blogs are being used in this way. Try a search on Google using the phrase "A professor of classics at McGill University and the author of Autobiography of Red". Wow! That's 3,380 hits about Anne Carson! (You know, the professor of classics at McGill! What do you mean, you've never heard of her?) Odd that this precise phrase should turn up so much? Ah, but have a closer look. The great majority of links are to spam sites: the phrase (lifted from Amazon) had a few extra hyperlinks to spam sites added, and was posted to thousands of comment boxes in blogs all over the Web. To see how bad it can get, have a look at one such "polluted" blog post, at the "Cowbell Chronicles" ( www.ineedmorecowbell.com/blog/000069.html). This idle thought posted in 2002 has a comments area that is a repository for a multitude of spam artists.

This electronic rain is flooding all the corners of the Web. Complaining is about as effective as shouting at rainclouds: one passes, another one appears. Many people try complaining to ISPs but as an ISP shuts down one "compromised" machine, a dozen more crop up, always Windows machines, usually taken over by viruses such as MyDoom, which were crafted specifically to create a host of "zombie" machines.

The parasitic economics of spam apply here. The spammer piggybacks on the blogger's bandwidth, upping the costs of running a blog by increasing the length of comments pages, and by calling up the comments page to auto-post commercial junk on it. Even if your comments page is only 2 Kbytes, having it called up by spammers 200,000 times a year means a bandwidth bill for an extra 400 Mbyte.

What sort of shelter is there from this deluge? Some bloggers don't accept comments. Some force contributors to register. Some force them to enter a series of numbers or letters that aren't machine-readable. Some require an e-mail and send a message with a hyperlink to click before the comment can appear. Others, including me, have programs that analyse the content of would-be comments for "spam words". It's not perfect; the other day I found my own attempts at a comment on my blog blocked. Just as with e-mail, spam is throttling one of the great communications mediums enabled by the internet, and particularly the Web.

Who's to blame? Not just the spammers. Blame must also rest on the search engines. By not finding better ways to prevent spammers guying its index, Google, the most popular search engine, is allowing the problem to worsen. Allowing bloggers to report offending spam sites, and then removing the sites from Google, might be one step. It would be a challenge to operate, but anything that throws a spammer onto the back foot must be good.

A final criticism goes to Microsoft, for creating a consumer operating system of astonishing insecurity. If Windows 98 (the first version of Windows written when Microsoft was properly aware of the internet and networks) and its successors had been written with security in mind, there would be far fewer "compromised" Windows machines being used in this way. Sure, there would be some insecure machines, but not the legions drizzling rubbish upon those of us who want to engage in dialogue without being interrupted by parasites.

www.charlesarthur.com/blog

News
Paper trail: the wedding photograph found in the rubble after 9/11 – it took Elizabeth Keefe 13 years to find the people in it
newsWho are the people in this photo? It took Elizabeth Stringer Keefe 13 years to find out
Arts and Entertainment
Evil eye: Douglas Adams in 'mad genius' pose
booksNew biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
Sport
FootballFull debuts don't come much more stylish than those on show here
News
i100
PROMOTED VIDEO
Life and Style
Kim Kardashian drawn backlash over her sexy swimsuit selfie, called 'disgusting' and 'nasty'
fashionCritics say magazine only pays attention to fashion trends among rich, white women
Arts and Entertainment
TVShows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
Arts and Entertainment
Hit the roof: hot-tub cinema east London
architectureFrom pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
Travel
travel
News
The ecological reconstruction of Ikrandraco avatar is shown in this illustration courtesy of Chuang Zhao. Scientists on September 11, 2014 announced the discovery of fossils in China of a type of flying reptile called a pterosaur that lived 120 millions years ago and so closely resembled those creatures from the 2009 film, Avatar that they named it after them.
SCIENCE
Life and Style
tech
News
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
Arts and Entertainment
Matisse: The Cut-Outs exhibition attracted 562,000 visitors to the Tate Modern from April to September
art
Life and Style
Models walk the runway at the Tom Ford show during London Fashion Week Spring Summer 2015
fashionLondon Fashion Week 2014
News
Kenny G
news
News
peopleThe black actress has claimed police mistook her for a prostitute when she kissed her white husband
Life and Style
techIndian model comes with cricket scores baked in
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Energy Markets Analyst

£400000 Per Annum: The Green Recruitment Company: Job Title: Energy Markets An...

Junior Web Analyst – West Sussex – Up to £35k DOE

£30000 - £35000 Per Annum Plus excellent benefits: Clearwater People Solutions...

Nursery Manager

£22000 - £23000 per annum: Randstad Education Bristol: We are currently recrui...

Web Analyst – Permanent – Up to £40k - London

£35000 - £40000 Per Annum: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: We are currently r...

Day In a Page

Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

A shot in the dark

Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
His life, the universe and everything

His life, the universe and everything

New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
Save us from small screen superheroes

Save us from small screen superheroes

Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
Reach for the skies

Reach for the skies

From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

12 best hotel spas in the UK

Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments
These Iranian-controlled Shia militias used to specialise in killing American soldiers. Now they are fighting Isis, backed up by US airstrikes

Widespread fear of Isis is producing strange bedfellows

Iranian-controlled Shia militias that used to kill American soldiers are now fighting Isis, helped by US airstrikes
Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Shoppers don't come to Topshop for the unique
How to make a Lego masterpiece

How to make a Lego masterpiece

Toy breaks out of the nursery and heads for the gallery
Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Urbanites are cursed with an acronym pointing to Employed but No Disposable Income or Savings
Paisley’s decision to make peace with IRA enemies might remind the Arabs of Sadat

Ian Paisley’s decision to make peace with his IRA enemies

His Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign would surely have been supported by many a Sunni imam
'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

Exclusive extract from Janis Winehouse's poignant new memoir
Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

The Imitation Game, film review
England and Roy Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption in Basel

England and Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption

Welbeck double puts England on the road to Euro 2016
Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

Pictures removed from public view as courts decide ownership
‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

Donatella Versace at New York Fashion Week