Dealing with Disgusting Spam

from the January 2003 Newsletter
by Rob Zorn

If you've been following Internet trends (take for example some of the Internet related news snippets featured here over the last few months) then you'd know that a lot's been written lately regarding the proliferation of spam e-mail. Your own experience may well back this up. Some experts estimate that in the not-too-distant future, the amount of advertising junk mail turning up in your mailbox will exceed legitimate mail.

Sure, unsolicited e-mail is annoying, but what's worse is the dark trend towards explicit pornographic content that seems to be occurring. Among the promises of great mortgage deals, debt elimination and the cheapest printer cartridges imaginable, there was always the odd invitation to a porn site, or information about how some account I am supposed to have applied for at one weirdo site or another I've never heard of has now been approved. Normally they'd promise the sexual world if I would only click the link they provided.

These days, though, they're tending to go a lot further. Instead of just a link and a clumsily penned pseudo-steamy invitation, we're getting pornographic images right there in the e-mail itself. Often these images go beyond just nudity. I've been gathering a few examples of the stuff that has been received by myself, others around the office, and even some from a customer or two.

It is not a pleasant collection.

I won't go into inappropriate detail, but the worse you could imagine is probably all there from animals through to very young-looking participants. The pictures are often very explicit and no restraint, subtlety or even blurring of the images is noticeable.

Most of us would probably agree (as does New Zealand law) that within the bounds of human decency and at an appropriate age, people should be free to do or look at whatever they like. But people should also be free not to have this sort of material thrust into their faces unsolicited. As adults, most of us can probably handle it okay. A few clicks of the Delete key and the images are permanently gone. It's more the kids that are the concern. Do we really want them starting up the computer, going online, and then, through no fault of their own, coming face to face with stuff that they really don't need to know about until a whole lot later in life?

What about your legal standing? If it is an offence to possess this sort of objectionable material (and it certainly is) then aren't these spammers forcing you to break the law? After all, when you download an e-mail that has illegal pictures in it, you now "possess" those pictures.

What Internal Affairs has to say about the matter

I spoke with Steve O'Brian at the Censorship Compliance Unit of the Department of Internal Affairs. In particular, I was concerned about the legal aspects surrounding porn spam, and also about what avenues are open to people who receive this stuff and want to do something about it. I got pretty good answers and the scope of our conversation covered quite a few related matters. I'll jot down the main points for you here.

Firstly, if you receive pornographic spam, you have not necessarily been singled out. You probably aren't the specific target and the spammer doesn't know you or anything about you. All that's happened is that somehow your e-mail address has gotten onto a spam list, along with literally millions of others. Don't take it too personally or start to fear that you're the target of someone who wants to hurt you in some way.

Secondly, you haven't done anything wrong. Internal Affairs are well aware that this sort of thing goes on. They know full well that spammers don't care who they send their porn to and that most people who receive it have not requested it, and have no interest in it.

Thirdly, your husband or children have not necessarily done anything wrong. Just because the spam e-mail says that someone at your e-mail address has signed up for a porn account, it ain't necessarily so. It's usually just a trick on the spammer's part to try and entice you to their web site.

Fourthly, Internal Affairs are not going to send the troops around to break down your door and arrest you just because you have received offensive spam. It's technically an offence if you have these images on your computer, but common sense does and will prevail. Delete the offending e-mail and don't send it on to anyone else (unless for the purposes of law enforcement or notifying your ISP or whatever). That way you clearly remain a victim and not a perpetrator and Internal Affairs will have no interest in wasting their time with you. If you do start sharing the stuff for no good reason, then your claim to being an innocent victim of a spam attack becomes a little harder to justify, and you may find yourself attracting the wrong sort of attention from our law enforcement agencies.

Fifthly, whatever you do, don't use their "Unsubscribe" feature. Most spam e-mails blatantly lie and say that they never send to anybody that hasn't requested to hear from them. They then offer you the ability to unsubscribe by clicking a button or sending them your e-mail address in some way so they can remove you from their mailing list. In fact, all they are doing is trying to confirm whether your e-mail address is actually working. They can sell a list of confirmed e-mail addresses to other spammers for even more money!

So what can you do about it?

One thing that must be kept in mind is that this sort of spam generally tends to have come from overseas. No doubt the spammer is breaking his or her own local laws in sending the stuff, but the point is that New Zealand law has no jurisdiction over them if they're not operating here. The Censorship Compliance Unit of Internal Affairs will attempt to deal with the problem, but they almost always end up being reliant on the overseas local law enforcement agencies. In other words, about all they can do is ask law enforcement in the spammer's country to prosecute. Sometimes this works well. Sometimes it doesn't.

Another thing that must be understood is that spammers are well practiced in hiding their details so they can't be traced easily. There are all sorts of things that can be done behind the scenes to mask who, what and where you are on the Internet. Sometimes the sad reality is that the spammer can't be traced, or by the time he is, he is long gone.

Because of the technical and international nature of the whole spam issue, the local police are probably not the best people to complain to. They may be able to get something accomplished if the spammer is local, but the chances of that are not great, and the matter would probably be passed from them to Internal Affairs anyway.

You can complain directly to Internal Affairs by e-mailing censorship@dia.govt.nz. Internal Affairs is a government department. As such they are public servants and you have every right to seek their assistance. It needs to be pointed out, however, that they are already very much concerned with indecent spam, and have set themselves up in such a way that they probably would already have received the e-mail you wish to complain about, and they are likely to be pursuing it. Due to the recent upturn in amounts of spam, they do receive a steady stream of complaints, so much so that they are not always able to reply to them all and still get their work done. Keep this in mind if you are considering complaining. Try not to be impatient either. Wheels turn pretty slowly when it comes to pursuing these sorts of things.

Why don't ISPs do more to stop this stuff?

This isn't a bad question, but its one often asked by someone hot under the collar, understandably indignant, but who may not have thought through all the problems and pitfalls the ISP may find itself in if it tries take on the role of censor, and starts blocking people's mail at its own sole discretion. Also, spammers know pretty well how to get around most filters that can be erected against them. They will rarely send from the same address twice and it really isn't difficult to find ways around filters that check text content (send the offensive material as an image with a harmless title, for example).

Actrix Cyber-Security Suite

Nevertheless ISPs (at least Actrix, certainly) do realise that spam, and particularly the offensive sort, is becoming more and more of a concern. As a result, most are introducing new services to assist customers in dealing with spam, whether its offensive or just outright annoying. I am happy to foreshadow that Actrix will be releasing some new products and services early in 2003. Aside from an opt-in server-based virus scanning solution, which I mentioned a newsletter or two ago, we will be providing CyberFilter, an opt in spam filter service that will allow you as the customer total control over what does or doesn't reach your mailbox. The system will be based on white and black lists maintained personally by the customer through a web based interface with rules associated with their mailbox(es). The software has been written and, over the break, our web developers will be designing the interface and completing testing and bug-fixing on the back-end functionalities. Look at for more information about the cyber-security suite in the new year!

You can read about Actrix's stance on a server-based virus solution in my article Actrix and Server-based Virus Scanning from the October 2002 Newsletter.