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Spam will bring down the West


“An 18-year-old man has been arrested in New Zealand, charged with masterminding an international internet fraud. 1.5 million personal identities were stolen and their bank accounts skimmed. If convicted, he faces 10 years in prison”

From BBC News, 30 November, 2007

Yesterday, I got a call from a friend, fretting about an e-mail she’d had from someone we both know slightly. Was it genuine? The message she forwarded bore the correct email address of this person, her name, and other convincing details. It said, basically, help! The woman was attending an aid conference in Africa, had left her purse in a taxi and was desperate to pay the hotel bill. The hotel wouldn’t let her leave. Would we, her friends, forward the money, $2,200, care of the hotel receptionist, and she would pay us back on her return?

The subject of the conference was an area we knew she was interested in. But the style of the writing was heavily accented. And the backstory? Unbelievable! This person has a perfectly good husband to bail her out in an emergency. Lost credit cards are easily dealt with, even in darkest Africa. Would the conference organisers not have been able to help her? Why hadn’t she just phoned her bank? Should we believe that a person who knew us only slightly would ask for such a large amount? How had she run up such a huge bill in the few days she was supposed to have been staying in the hotel? Did the sender not think we might telephone the woman’s home to check the story?

What clinched it for us, was that the supposed ‘hotel’ was located in Nigeria, home of the disingenuous email scam. Even so, we took a moment to think about it. More concerned friends might not be so circumspect. That moment of uncertainty, of kneejerk compassion, is what the conmen rely on for their deception.

I had just begun to get used to being spammed daily by my bank in almost convincing detail, asking me to ‘update’ my security (which, of course, you should never do, even when they catch you in watching Coronation Street), and now this. Some little shit had stolen the poor woman’s email address, her identity, the addresses of all her contacts, our friends’ names. They had created a crude marketing profile, targeting their lying messages around her known behaviour. Then, they had deliberately set out to use her to commit fraud against people who trust her.

It’s not funny. There seems no hope of a future in which we do not have to accommodate in our everyday lives, the prospect of being disempowered by fraudsters, leaving their slimy e-trails over the networks by which we communicate with our friends, colleagues and family. We cannot trust the technology that increasingly underpins our financial transactions. The deepest foundations of our societal relationships are under relentless attack from a new breed of terrorist, the ultimate by-product of global capitalism: back-bedroom sociopaths with the tools, the education, the cynical anti-materialism and the imagined dispossession that drives them to want to screw us.

I get around two hundred spam emails every day. Or rather, I don’t get them. I have set the spam filter on max and the emails are held up at the service provider. I know how many are there, because it now takes on average eight minutes to collect the few genuine emails I do expect (God knows how many are being filtered out in the process). Sometimes they jam the server, and I cannot get mail at all. The content is such blatant rubbish, you wonder why they bother. Computer-driven and random, we shouldn’t take it personally. Or should we?

My inbox generally brings me several dozen attempts at withering sarcasm regarding the size of my penis, my inability to satisfy my partner, before offering a bogus pharmaceutical solution that will “make women faint”. There’s a lot of flam from penny-share tipsters, much of it for some reason written in Russian; fake Rolex salesmen, and more fishy bollocks from Nigeria about dead politicians’ widows and Swiss bank accounts; offers of free laptops; reminders from total strangers about how we met in places I have never been; proposals of marriage from desperate Estonians; photos of Britney with her clothes off. But they all know my name.

If it wasn’t so malevolent, it might be fun to explore the world of the spammers. There is an ever-growing tsunami of the stuff washing around. The more you reject it, the more arrives, carrying its sinister cargo of Trojan viruses and other “malware”. I have spent probably two hundred pounds now on software to neutralise it; even this behaves suspiciously. How come, for instance, the adware blocker that isn’t running keeps popping up to tell me it has detected 512 suspect files, when the one that is comes up with clean scans? Can you trust this stuff either, or is it designed to scare people into buying more?

A potential boon to mankind, that has been around for only fifteen years, the internet is already so grossly overcommercialised, riddled with criminality and groaning under the weight of misleading information, that it has become valueless. You cannot trust any part of it, not even messages from your friends.

Internet fraud is so low-key, there is no concerted effort by society to fight back. Emailing is an activity performed in private: communication that, while it feels as though it is bringing people closer together, maintains us in vulnerable isolation. Much spam is deliberately embarrassing, playing on our deepest insecurities. Some of it is no doubt innocent, fishing for opportunistic sales rather than bank details. In principle, one supposes, some clever New Zealander could invent a torpedo that will track ‘phishing’ software to its source and destroy the criminals’ operating systems; better still, empty their bank accounts. But it is more exciting for geeks to be on the dark  side, fighting the good fight against overmighty Microsoft, battling global capitalism, driving a Porsche….

If nothing is done to restore credibility, the internet revolution is as good as dead. Social dislocation will bring down the West. Identity theft is global warfare. It is succeeding more brilliantly than Bin Laden could have imagined.

1,000 words. 2007.

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