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Major Anti-Spam Lawsuit To Be Filed In VA 77

Posted by kdawson
from the honey-pot-paying-off dept.
Rick Zeman sends us to the Washington Post, which is reporting that a John Doe lawsuit will be filed in US District Court today in spam-unfriendly Alexandria, Virginia. The suit will be filed by Project Honey Pot, which is having a week of big announcements. The suit seeks the identity of individuals responsible for harvesting millions of e-mail addresses on behalf of spammers. From the Post: "The company is filing the suit on behalf of some 20,000 people who use its anti-spam tool. Web site owners use the project's free software to generate pages that feature unique 'spam trap' e-mail addresses each time those pages are visited. The software then records the Internet address of the visitor and the date and time of the visit. Because those addresses are never used to sign up for e-mail lists, the software can help investigators draw connections between harvesters and spammers if an address generated by a spam trap or 'honey pot' later receives junk e-mail."
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Major Anti-Spam Lawsuit To Be Filed In VA

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  • by morgan_greywolf (835522) * on Thursday April 26, 2007 @08:46AM (#18883123) Homepage Journal
    So these guys are using the same tactics as the RIAA to catch spammers? I smell a patent lawsuit! ;)

    • by Bedouin X (254404)
      Yeah except I'm sure these guys are more likely to be capturing innocent people as I would guess that a lot of this work is probably done via botnets. But maybe I'm wrong.
      • by tekiegreg (674773) *
        Not sure, but I'd think the spider code used to harvest email addresses off the web is still done in house rather than "farmed out" to botnets. Then again, what do I know...
        • by tekiegreg (674773) *
          As a postscript to what I just said tho, botnet, in-house or whatever. It's all got to submit to somewhere. If one could work his way right up the trail yeah you could find out who did it, good luck to ya tho...
        • by Kadin2048 (468275) <slashdot@kadin.xoxy@net> on Thursday April 26, 2007 @10:48AM (#18884655) Homepage Journal
          Maybe the solution to the botnet problem isn't to go after the botnet operators, but to go after the people who are leaving unpatched machines connected to the net? Or, perhaps more to the point, their ISPs?

          I understand this wouldn't be an exactly popular solution -- it's sort of the equivalent of a "scorched earth" tactic towards spammers -- but what if you implemented strict liability on all computers under your control? You get rootkitted or botnetted, sorry pal, it's your problem. Don't want to deal with it? Keep your machines up-to-date or keep them unplugged.

          Unpatched machines that are connected to the internet are a public nuisance, in the same way that an abandoned house in an otherwise good neighborhood is. It's nearly impossible, and probably a losing battle, to try and go after the individual criminals who are using the abandoned house for nefarious purposes (which isn't to say that we shouldn't try); sometimes the best solution is just to go after the person who owns the house and make them either fix it or raze it.

          A compromise, which would avoid true strict liability, would be making it a positive defense that you took reasonable steps to secure a system; i.e. it was kept up-to-date with the latest vendor patches and was behind a firewall. But if you can't take those reasonable steps, or are too incompetent/lazy/ignorant to do it, maybe you shouldn't be on the net at all.
          • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

            MOD PARENT UP!

            Amen brother. In today's society of "ooh.. it's not my fault.." somebody needs to take the initiative to make the people responsible for the problem responsible and those people are the OWNERS of the pwned machines. Yes, Microsoft sucks. Yes, Microsoft has security problems. They do, however, release patches in a semi-reasonable time frame and people just DO NOT patch their machines like they should. Of course, there's kind of a "catch-22" with if you'r system is cut off from the net
          • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

            by drinkypoo (153816)

            Maybe the solution to the botnet problem isn't to go after the botnet operators, but to go after the people who are leaving unpatched machines connected to the net? Or, perhaps more to the point, their ISPs?

            I think most of us would support a system that would, upon detection of an infection of your system, apply firewall rules to prevent you from doing anything other than viewing a webpage that says "Your ass is infected, call this number to find out how to get back on the internet." The problem is that it

            • by Kadin2048 (468275) <slashdot@kadin.xoxy@net> on Thursday April 26, 2007 @11:44AM (#18885677) Homepage Journal
              True. However, there are some behaviors that ought to be immediately detectable -- sending out hundreds or thousands of nearly-identical emails, for instance, or DDoSing a server with repeated identical requests in patterns that are too fast to be a human being.

              But you're right; technological solutions would probably only further the cat-and-mouse game between bot authors and the authorities; it would probably be fairly easy to write a DDoS bot that mimicked human browsing -- it wouldn't be as effective as sending out a few thousand requests per second, but if you had enough bots you could melt a server in the same way that a large number of bona fide humans do when a page gets mentioned on Slashdot. That would be nearly impossible to reliably detect. So in the long run I'm not sure that's effective; what's needed is a way of making sure more people follow the recommended guidelines given by their OS manufacturer, in terms of security updates and best practices.

              In that way, I think that to be effective, you would need to have both a legal solution and a technological one. If you really went after people whose computers were compromised because they weren't keeping them patched and were leaving them on the Internet, in a very public way, you might encourage people to either patch their machines or disconnect them.

              I'm not sure that such a tactic would be politically feasible -- as other people have pointed out, it is exactly the same tactic used by the RIAA to scare people into not file sharing, and the effect of that is questionable at best (however, in the case of discouraging people from leaving their PC unpatched, you're really not working against something they want to do, in the same way that the anti-file-sharing people are; very few people want to have an unpatched machine, they're just too lazy to do anything about it -- you're not really being punitive as much as you're giving them some very pointed encouragement to do something about a problem they're today comfortably ignoring).
          • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

            by robogun (466062)
            Well, you're talking about removing their common carrier protection.

            You need to think long and hard if you actually want that to happen, because this is definitely one of those cases of "be careful what you wish for."

            Because a couple years from now you'll be in here bitching "My ISP won't let me use any p2p app, or telnet even ssh, or download exe files etc etc" just because someone *might* sue them.
      • by daeg (828071) on Thursday April 26, 2007 @09:19AM (#18883423)
        They aren't seeking the identity of the unintentional middlemen involved, or are, but only so far as to find the identity at the end of the tunnel, so to speak. If they identify the particular botnet involved, they can attempt to trace it back to whoever controls it, installed it, or locate who picked the bundle of addresses up.

        And even if they can't find the end person, they can at least educate the zombie PC owners using a real-world example instead of the fear tactics used to push crapware like Norton Internet Security.
        • by Intron (870560)
          First off, you can't educate zombie PC owners. By definition, all they want is BRAINS.

          Second, it's going to be tough to interest law enforcement in a $200 purchase of harvested email addresses. Linking that to the botnet or webscrapers is going to be difficult, and CAN-SPAM did not create any mandate or provide any funds to law enforcement. It was a joke played on the gullible by Congress.

          Third, project Honeypot has a major problem if they think they can fund their organization by selling these [cafepress.com] to geeks.
      • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

        by Dachannien (617929)
        Scenario I: The e-mail harvesters are using their own crawlers. The IP addresses picked up by the honeynet lead directly to the e-mail harvesters, making it easier to make a case against them. No innocent third parties are involved.

        Scenario II: The e-mail harvesters are using botnets. The IP addresses lead to third-party zombie machines that were infected by malware pushed by the e-mail harvesters. The honeynet operators file the anti-spam lawsuit, settle with the actual spammers for reduced damages i
      • by orielbean (936271)
        Perhaps this is a useful way for people to be more aware about unpatched machines and clicking every stupid link on the net...A beneficial side effect?
    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by crymeph0 (682581)
      Same thing I thought. Of course, since this is being done by the good guys, there won't be any major flames directed towards them. If you honestly don't believe the RIAA can find who owned an IP address at a certain time, what makes you think these guys will do any better?
      • by Ornedan (1093745)
        Possibly by not being utter wankers like the RIAA and actually analysing the data first and only targeting the most likely matches. For example, anyone that shows up in the logs just once is probably a false positive and can be discarded. So can anyone that does show up multiple times, but only over a single, short time period - say, an hour. On the other hand, someone that gets logged consistently over longer time periods and even from different IPs is far more suspicious and worth investigating more close
      • by cswiger (63672)
        You have a point, but I think the Honeynet project has a better one-- the RIAA and MediaSentry do all kinds of proactive seeding of bad audio files, scanning for open filesharing ports, etc, etc...but a honeynet starts off by being passive and only responds to connections which are initiated from elsewhere.

        If you discover a subnet which scans your IP range and snarfs up a buncha email addresses which have never been publicised elsewhere (and are hidden behind appropriate robots.txt or META noindex,nofollow
  • by Anonymous Coward on Thursday April 26, 2007 @08:48AM (#18883147)
    which is here [washingtonpost.com]
  • by pzs (857406) on Thursday April 26, 2007 @08:50AM (#18883161)
    Obviously this kind of litigation is a good step and to be encouraged, but it's interesting to imagine what would happen if nobody took action against spammers through the courts.

    Clearly spam works, so the amount of spam being sent would only continue to grow. Would this lead to increased vigilante action? More privacy and restrictions imposed by administrators? Decrease in the use of Email as the signal-to-noise ratio continues to degenerate? All of the above?

    Peter
    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by Anonymous Coward
      Clearly spam works, so the amount of spam being sent would only continue to grow.

      Sometimes I wonder if that's the case or if it's a case of slash and burn marketing - the spammers just keep signing up folks (especially overseas) who don't know any better, take their money, the folks who "advertised" realize it doesn't work and stop, the spammer just moves on and keeps signing folks up.

      My ISP's spam filters are great and I'm really careful about sharing my email address. That being said, are there still a l

      • Sometimes I wonder if that's the case or if it's a case of slash and burn marketing - the spammers just keep signing up folks (especially overseas) who don't know any better, take their money, the folks who "advertised" realize it doesn't work and stop, the spammer just moves on and keeps signing folks up.

        Then why would the "spammer" have to actually send emails? Wouldn't that just be extra effort, since they're lying to the client anyway?
  • So, if they get emails at this honey pot email account, and they are able to make deductions and say that a certain outfit was responsible for mining that email address and giving it to spammers... does that hold any legal weight*?

    I'm trying to figure out how they can do this AND have it be able to hold water in court. Theres a hundred ways an account can get an email (spam or not) without it being mined specifically by the future defendant. I don't think it will suffice as the plentiff's sole burden of p
    • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

      by thona (556334)
      ::Theres a hundred ways an account can get an email ::(spam or not) without it being mined specifically ::by the future defendant. How? I put up a new email account. Noone ever uses it. It is only shown on a website for ONE page (i.e. next visitor gets another account). Nopw, I grant that someoone may mistype an address. But then - this will not result in a lot of emails coming. q.e.d.
      • It is possible if you brute-force all the e-mail address space, and you don't really need to brute force it. Markov Chains and other techniques can help you reduce the number of possibilities to try.

        Let's hope this project thought about this issue (for example, by generating quite long AND random addresses), I would suppose so but haven't checked.
    • So, if they get emails at this honey pot email account, and they are able to make deductions and say that a certain outfit was responsible for mining that email address and giving it to spammers... does that hold any legal weight*?


      Ask the RIAA. The same tactics have worked for them at least half the time -- other half is spent suing grandmothers and small children.
    • by aadvancedGIR (959466) on Thursday April 26, 2007 @09:06AM (#18883283)
      Directly proving how the address was collected may indeed be a weak evidence, but you'd better see that as a working base.
      Starting evidences:
      -A send spam to targeted email, obviously without opt-in.
      -B is suspected to have harvested that adress.
      And then:
      -Investigation shows a link between A and B.
      Then you have something solid to sue on.
      • The connection between the harvester and the spammer will be key (assuming they are separate entities - if they are the same entity - then the buck stops there).

        Here's some math. There are 15K harvesters identified by Honeypot. About 20% are US-based. This makes more than 3K harvesters that are US-based and subject to jurisdiction by US courts. With the power of legal process it won't be that hard to unmask the identities of a large portion of these 3K harvesters. With some pressure and threat of damages
    • by Peeteriz (821290)
      "Theres a hundred ways an account can get an email" - of course, and the honeypot construction is completely irrelevant to the case, as long as they have not submitted these adresses directly to the defendant (subscribed; entered business relationship, etc, etc)
      According to the anti-spam laws they are suing for, that would be the only legal way for these e-mails to be used in advertising.
      They only have to prove that it was the defendant who sent these e-mails - it is pretty c
    • Theres a hundred ways an account can get an email (spam or not) without it being mined specifically by the future defendant.

      The way Project Honeypot works is this:

      1. A webmaster puts a script somewhere on his site.
      2. The webmaster then puts hidden links to that script such that most human visitors will not notice them.
      3. Bots crawl the site, and access the script.
      4. The script contacts Project Honeypot, which generates a unique email address (or several) and a legal statement explaining that you do not have per
  • Is there any kind of mandate for this? I mean, this is a private organization doing this, not local police or the FBI as part of some larger investigation, so I imagine the suit would have to be civil, rather than criminal. They might have a harder time doing this than they realize. If I were them, i might have gotten law enforcement involved at some point. The link in the article is useless, since it really says nothing about the suit.

    • I mean, this is a private organization doing this, not local police or the FBI as part of some larger investigation, so I imagine the suit would have to be civil, rather than criminal. They might have a harder time doing this than they realize.

      On the other hand from what I(AmNotALawyer) understand, a civil suit needs only prove wrongdoing by preponderance of evidence, as opposed to beyond reasonable doubt; that is, you only need to prove that they probably did it, rather than almost certainly. It also h

    • Is there any kind of mandate for this?

      I can think of several good reasons.
      * CAN-SPAM makes unsolicited commercial email illegal in the US, but enforcement is very difficult.
      * Spam must be a huge expense to the broad community of internet users -- bandwidth, filter costs, manual efforts, etc.
      * Providing spammers with incentive to take over others' PCs with zombie botnets extracts further costs to hapless users.
      ...
      And maybe a collective satisfaction of seeing anti-social thieves locked up should coun
  • by paulatz (744216) on Thursday April 26, 2007 @09:15AM (#18883383) Homepage
    Maybe in the USA nobody knows, but the acronym VA uses to stand for Vatican (http://www.vatican.va/) not Virginia. You may imagine how dazzled I was after reading that the Pope himself will take care of spammers, will they be excommunicated?
  • I live in the vicinity of Alexandria (well, about 60-90 minutes away). Is there any way regular spam-targets like me can help?
    • by jalet (36114)
      Sure you can help : just go there and break the spammers' legs.
    • by wargolem (715873)

      If you live in VA, you might have already done your part depending on how you voted! VA has some awesomely strict anti-spam laws which even make it illegal to route spam through VA, even if the spammer and recipient don't reside anywhere in VA. Do a search for "Virginia Computer Crimes Act", or just click here for VA Codes and Laws [state.va.us]. As always, the EFF [eff.org] is a good place to look around too.

      Now if VA would just get rid of UCITA... *sigh*

    • Sure -- quit ordering those Canadian meds! ;-)
    • 60-90 minutes from Alexandria puts you in about Annandale, at least during certain times of the day.
  • by rel4x (783238) on Thursday April 26, 2007 @09:45AM (#18883709)
    This is cool, but I doubt many big players still use web crawlers to find e-mails. Not with plentiful sources of hacked databases and co-registation e-mails available. Servers cost money, time to setup, and man hours to make sure they're up. Pushing low quality e-mails wouldnt be worth it, since the response rate of spam has lowered so much over time. Too many of the e-mails were posted years ago(and since died), are honeypots, or unverifiable e-mails(large domains like yahoo.com do not support the method spammers use to verify the existance of e-mail addresses).
  • Looks ok, hope this spam thing gets to an end but it does not look like its ever going to end as they catch one and 99 are still spamming. in fact they are growing with in crease in number of internet users. Hope some one put a full stop in front of spammers some day.
  • Might not be a bad idea to update the summary with a link to the full story [washingtonpost.com] mentioned in the blurb.
  • This method of collecting evidence assumes that the email addresses aren't collected using the same zombie computers that send the spam.

    Two things can happen:
    1) Spammers used their own computers, and (maybe) face the consequences - after this lawsuit the collecting is distributed onto zombies aswell. As long as there's a market, there'll be new people exploiting it.

    or

    2) The spammers didn't use their own computers to collect addresses, and will continue that way.
  • Not that I have any hard information, but I guess these guys are using this as an information gathering exercise prior to something bigger (at least I hope it leads to something...)

    The gathering of IP addresses has been discussed here before (though I cannot offhand remember when). It is theorectically trivial to serve up a cryptohash of the IP address of the visitor harvesting email addresses with the intention of spamming. So, we know how the email address in question was gathered.

    SMTP connection tracking
  • This needs to be done more often. Where do we get the software!?

    If only they could find a solution to Domain Tasting and Kiting, we'd be taking a good step forward.
  • NOT Viginlante (Score:3, Insightful)

    by DynaSoar (714234) * on Thursday April 26, 2007 @11:36AM (#18885491) Journal
    This is in response to various replies, not the parent or TFA: This is not "vigilante" activity. A vigilante is someopne who usurps or subverts established social structure, acting as judge, jury and/or executioner.

    Before there were laws on the books about spamming, there was no social structure for identifying and acting against spammers. Those who did it then were emergent order enforcement acts. They were volunteers carrying out the desires of many based on the consensus, or at least vocal majority, of the net. There was a socially accepted behavior, people who violated it, and people who took it upon themselves to enforce the socially accepted. All law enforcement has evolved from social systems in precisely this manner.

    Now that there are laws, these people seek to identify the perps, and use the established social structure by turning them over to the proper channels and authorities.

    Those who provide filtering/blocking services are acting within a social structure suitably designed and executed for property protection. They are offering private protection services and people sign up with them, or not.

    Ever since Canter & Seigel people have accused anti-spammers of vigilantism without understanding what it means. Of course this was semi-informed media, hot headed critics, or spammers caught in the act, all of them using the word for hot-button value.

    Now, people who cat together their tracking cookies with large garbage files to try to buffer overflow spammers' data collection activities, and people who set up botnets to DDoS spammer botnets, those are vigilantes. There are laws in place. Going around them is what vigilantism is about.

    I was there for Canter & Seigel, and many more for several years. Only Alan Boyle, science editor at MSNBC, ever noted that the word "vigilante" was frequently misused in this way by others in the media. The few others anywhere near as correct simply didn't refer to us in that way.
  • The sound of money? (Score:3, Interesting)

    by John3 (85454) <john3@cor3.14nells.com minus pi> on Thursday April 26, 2007 @12:22PM (#18886349) Homepage Journal
    From the lawsuit mini-faq [projecthoneypot.org]:

    What happens to any money you win in the lawsuit?
            We're a long way from that, but we'd like to help out the people who have helped us. Obviously a large chunk would go to paying legal fees. Intriguingly, though, since we will know what Project Honey Pot members provided the data that ends up winning the case, maybe we'll be able to send them a little bonus. :-)


    I've been running a few of their honeypots for the past two years, so hopefully one of the spammers I "caught" will wind up paying a big time settlement. Sure, it's a pipe dream, but it's my pipe dream.
  • Botnets are the biggest source of spam, so why do ISPs still allow direct outbound SMTP from home connections by default? It wouldn't be too difficult to force all outbound SMTP through the ISP's mailserver by default, but allow direct SMTP connections for those who ask for them. If the mail goes through the ISP's mailserver, it can easily be tagged and the ISP can monitor for suspicious activity.

    Is there some reason why this can't be done, or is it just that there's noone to enforce it on the ISPs? I

  • Available at this link [washingtonpost.com] (PDF)
  • I run my own mailserver and I can generate a unique email alias on a whim, that forwards to my main account. I use this whenever I need to give my address to someone that I either don't trust or want to be able to track.

    I usually include part of the vendor in the address so I can remember it easlier. So like for NewEgg, I give them "v1newegg@vftp.net". Any email I receive that is addressed to v1newegg@vftp.net, I know exactly where it legitimately could have come from. If it comes from someone selling pr

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