Bounties Are Not the Answer to Spam

We know who the spammers are. Blowing hundreds of thousands of dollars on disgruntled employees is not cost-effective.

Its easy to sympathize with the Federal Trade Commission on the spam issue. They have a tough job, and they have had the good sense to recognize that the infrastructure is not there for them to do everything Congress wants from them.

But their recent call for bounties to be paid for informants against spammers makes me uncomfortable. If I knew more about how they would be used I might be more comfortable, but my first impression is that they could create some really perverse incentives.

Law enforcement people will tell you that rewards are a very effective technique for rooting out criminals, and theres certainly evidence it can work in the computer security field. The author of the Sasser and Netsky worms was caught with the help of a reward put up by Microsoft. (And, ironically, that author has been rewarded with a job at a security firm. Talk about your perverse incentives!)

There are important differences between virus writing and spamming. Virus authors are hard to find. Spammers are comparatively easy to find. Virus authors are all committing crimes. Spammers probably are, but the exact definition of spamming is controversial in some ways.

Very often its not hard to tell who the spammer is through forensic techniques. And even when its tough to do so, such as when spam is sent through a zombie system, its not hard to identify the product or service being advertised. Even so, many of these are shady operations or outright frauds and even with a fink on the inside, they will be hard to find and prosecute.

But sometimes its easy, as with the spam I just got for Florida Metropolitan University. I know this isnt the only spam Ive gotten that came from an identifiable business. As I understand the CAN-SPAM law, they dont need an inside fink to go after this one. Perhaps the authorities are FMU alumni and still have a sweet spot for the old alma mater.

And just as a general matter, I can see a lot of angry ex-employees, ex-partners and ex-girlfriends and boyfriends calling up the government to get revenge, and spamming is as easy a claim as anything else. Look at the next spam that comes into your inbox and prove to me that you didnt send it. At the very least someone will end up spending time looking into these claims.

If they want to get someone to rat out the big spammers, I bet they could have luck by prosecuting the vendors whose products are advertised. They must be paying someone to send out their spam, unless they are doing it themselves. I guess its easier for authorities to offer our money to criminals to turn in their accomplices, sit back and wait for the greedy opportunists to show up, but I wish theyd first try the other way a little harder.

Security Center Editor Larry Seltzer has worked in and written about the computer industry since 1983.

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