The Secret Anti-Spammer Death Squads

Opinion: Someone has to stop spammers, but let's keep our shirts on and not stoop to our e-mail tormentors' tactics.

Its hard not to feel bad for Blue Security, the unique anti-spam company that got blackmailed out of business last week. There may be no good way to handle the situation, but that doesnt mean that we should pick a bad way to do it.

Blue Securitys business was to complain, on behalf of their customers, to spammers. They would repeatedly bombard spammers with requests to unsubscribe their 522,000 customers. As Ferris Researchs Richi Jennings tells me, this was having an effect.

Spammers, like everyone else, come in all flavors. Some are the sort of vile criminals youd imagine theyd be, unconcerned with sending porn requests to children and using botnets to do their work. Others sort of backed in to spamming; they may be morally challenged, but theyre basically trying to do direct marketing.

Spammers usually ignore unsubscribe requests. But faced with a bombardment like the one from Blue Security, one of these latter-type "gray spammers" could be persuaded to scrub their lists of Blue Security customers, since those customers clearly dont want to get the messages and sales are less likely. Even as I type this, it sounds like wishful thinking, but Blue Security CEO Eran Reshef claimed otherwise: "Six out of the top 10 spammers worldwide have stopped sending spam to the Blue community recently."

Some other spammers chose a different way to respond. One, named by Reshef as "PharmaMaster," initiated a distributed denial-of-service attack against Blue Security and threatened, if the company did not cease their business, to attack their customers with malware. Blue Security decided to throw in the towel, but the spammer/blackmailer didnt stop there. They started another DDOS attack indirectly on Blue Security that brought their "farewell" message down along with numerous bystander sites. I wont go into the gory details, but the Washington Posts Brian Krebs has them in his blog.

I should say Im a little leery of some of the claims Ive read recently attributed to Reshef, as they seem a little self-congratulatory. Excerpts of ICQ sessions with PharmaMaster purportedly have him saying that Blue Security had found the secret to stopping spam and that he (PharmaMaster) had to put a stop to it. Sounds a little too much like Batman to me.


In any event, now some other parties have decided to pick up the bloody, tattered banner of anti-spammer attacks and fight on. To quote Ferris Jennings:

Several concerned parties have started an open source project to revive the Blue Frog. This new project is known as Black Frog or Okopipi (after a type of poison dart frog found in Suriname, South America). For more information, see the projects wiki. If the new project is not to be as vulnerable to malicious attack as Blue Security was, it will need to be highly decentralized, so there is no single critical resource that can be attacked. The project should also take care not to cross the line from legitimate spam complaints to attacking spammers using DDOS-like techniques—this was an early accusation leveled against Blue Frog.

I share Jenningss concerns. This sort of effort can easily degenerate into vigilantism. After all, how far is too far to go in taking down a criminal like PharmaMaster? Maybe the Okopipi and other such efforts should use botnets themselves to insulate them from retribution. Pretty soon we wont be able to take the difference between the bad guys and good guys, and its only a matter of time before some innocent party gets strung up (that is DDOSd) by the anti-spammer gang.

Its true that the law is in this area is inadequate, but it probably cant ever suffice. There have been a few cases of spammers being brought to justice through government or private civil action. But it takes too long and will never be enough to have a real effect on the problem. And PharmaMaster, like so many of these guys, is Russian. U.S. law can, in theory, reach him if he does business here, perhaps by using credit cards, but in the real world its not going to happen. And European law appears to be relatively toothless compared with U.S. law. They havent even had our trickle of legal cases.

So I dont have a better idea, but I have a bad feeling about this self-appointed anti-spam justice system. In the very long term we may be able to fix e-mail so that spamming isnt so easy, but in the meantime all we can do defend ourselves.

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


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