My column two weeks ago about how horrible the internet e-mail system has become seems to have struck an unexpected nerve with many of my readers.
Since then, I have had several of them stop me in the street to tell me about some perilous or annoying e-mail event in their internet history.
Their stories have inspired me to share with you here my most troubling e-mail story – a story not about me, as an internet user, but as someone once responsible for running an e-mail service.
I take you back, now, to the long-gone, halcyon days of the year 2000 – February, 2000, to be precise.
It was perhaps not an age of straw boaters and barbershop quartets, but it was a time more innocent than the present, at least in terms of the production of e-mail spam, and defences against it.
I was then the manager of YKnet – now defunct and long forgotten, but, in those days, the largest single internet service provider in the Yukon.
My view is obviously prejudiced, but YKnet in 2000 was, for my money, the best-run little dial-up access ISP service in the territory.
We had about 1,600 customers, with service in 11 Yukon communities, and we were consistently growing.
If I was inclined to be smug about life back then, though, the situation quickly changed one day in early February, when dozens upon dozens of our customers fell victim to a spammer.
The spammer in question was an enthusiast for John McCain, who at that time was battling with George W. Bush for nomination as the Republican candidate for the presidency.
This spammer had managed to get his hands on a list of YKnet e-mail addresses left over from one of the company’s early day misjudgments.
For about one year, we had run a Yukon Internet Directory web page, giving the names and e-mail addresses of people who had agreed to be included in the list.
The idea was to be a kind of internet telephone book, so that local people could find each other.
The real-world effect was that the list was quickly harvested by spammers and disseminated across the net to other purveyors of junk e-mail.
The John McCain spammer was, of course, not interested in sending messages to Yukoners; he was using those e-mail addresses in the “from” heading of his e-mails, not in the “to” line.
In other words, he was sending out e-mails to US e-mail addresses with faked return addresses – and those faked addresses were real, active addresses of YKnet customers.
He was not doing this because he had anything in particular against our little company; it was just a handy way of getting around the old, primitive e-mail filtering systems ISPs used in those days to intercept spam.
One of those methods was to track and then squash large volumes of e-mails that all came from the same e-mail address.
By stealing and using a bunch of different real-world e-mail addresses, spammers could circumvent that filter.
The problem for YKnet’s subscribers was that this spammer was sending out his propaganda to thousands of invalid e-mail addresses in the USA, and the YKnet victims were being flooded with all the delivery-failure notices, often hundreds of them each day.
Needless to say, they were upset; some of them were even a little worried, because they also got nasty notes from US citizens who had actually received the spam propaganda, and did not like it that firstname.lastname@example.org was sending out this kind of thing.
This problem went on for well over a week, and was pretty much impossible to solve at YKnet’s end.
We traced down and contacted the ISP which served as the originating source of the e-mails, but it was of no help at all.
Incredibly, it was a sales-hype company that gave out free, unrestricted dial-up internet access, with all users having the same username and password, and no logs or records kept of what use they were making of the service.
They handed out advertisement-branded internet dial-up software that allowed people this access, the idea being they would make their money from the advertising, not from subscription charges.
This made them a plump, red plumb for spammers, and it quickly became clear that they were too unethical to care about the problem, and too techno-illiterate to address it, anyway.
It was a pretty dire time for little YKnet:
We could not filter the delivery-failure notices, because they were coming from all kinds of big, important ISPs all over the USA.
And we could not get the offending ISP to stop sending the e-mails that were generating those failure messages.
As the problem went on over the course of the week, one sizable ISP in the American mid-West actually blacklisted YKnet as a spammer operation, and started blocking legitimate YKnet e-mails to their subscribers.
I had to spend some hours on the phone, tracking down and negotiating with the manager of that company, finally convincing him to reinstate us as a genuine, respectable ISP, which was just temporarily being exploited by a spammer.
Needless to say, I was not getting much sleep that week; I was still a smoker in those days, too, and I can remember I was easily running through a couple of packs a day.
It was not a healthy situation, either for me or for the company.
If it kept on the way it was, YKnet would start losing customers, and possibly end up being blacklisted by any number of other ISPs – which, of course, would mean losing even more customers.
At the safe remove of nine years, now, I can admit that the situation made me think of doing something I up to then would have considered unthinkable – organizing an attack on that other ISP, the one that was allowing the spam to flow.
Without trying to sound too dramatic about it, I passed a kind of dark night of the soul, one Sunday night, as I thought about how I – as myself, not as a YKnet employee – could perhaps organize some forces to hack into that ISP and bring them down, at least temporarily.
It was a prospect that went against my every instinct and value as an IT guy; the idea quite literally made me vomit, that night.
Nevertheless, I went to work the next morning thinking that, if that day ended with the situation the same, I would start talking to certain accomplished potential hackers I knew about launching an attack.
By blind good chance, it was that very afternoon that the McCain spammer, for reasons I will never know, stopped faking YKnet addresses on his e-mails.
Either he had moved on, or some people from the McCain camp had convinced him to desist.
For me and for our little company, it was enough that the torture had finally stopped, and never came back.
So there you have it: My story about why, to this day, I have such a distaste for the whole business of spam and electronic mail.
I know from personal experience that the situation is so bad it can very literally make you sick.
Rick Steele is a technology
junkie who lives in Whitehorse.