Powered by Movable Type 3.121
Home The Book Training Events Tools Stats
Web log archive.
A Dispatch

« Phish in the Pool | Main | Medz Sunday »

November 29, 2007

The Futurama of Spam

I admit to being a fan of a lot of what Matt Groening and his animation spawn have produced, notably "The Simpsons" and "Futurama." A framed cel from "The Simpsons" graces my office wall—a gift that I treasure, regardless of its actual value.

"Futurama" was an unfortunately short-lived series (1999-2003) that developed quite a following among the nerd classes, thanks to tons of jokes about computers, math, and science. I'll leave the rest of the history to the very up-to-date Wikipedia entry.

The show has been revived, although in a non-traditional way. There will be four direct-to-DVD animation features, which will then be chopped into half-hour episodes to air eventually on Comedy Central. Bender illustration The first DVD, titled "Bender's Big Score," came out this week, and Amazon whisked it into my hot little hands. If you don't know the series, it takes place in the 31st century, and Bender is a robot. He is described as "foul-mouthed, alcoholic, cigar-smoking, kleptomaniacal, misanthropic, egocentric, and ill-tempered"—everything our inner children would be if they drank beer and smoked stogies.

The premise for the first "feature-length epic" is founded on spam and online identity theft. (And you thought those issues were so 21st century!) The problems begin on another planet (the lead characters work for Planet Express, an intergalactic delivery service), where some aliens ("Scammer Aliens" named Nudar, Schlump, and Fleb) convince the characters to fill out a survey on a computer tablet, kindly asking our friends to enter their email addresses in the process.

One character, Leela, is suspicious at first, and asks, "You won't send me any spam, will you?" In response, the alien, in a soothing voice, protests, "Oh, no, no, no, no, [under his breath] asterisk."

Cut to our main characters back on Earth in the Planet Express office, checking their email. Everyone is flooded with spam messages. Amy's pink furry skinned laptop computer (if you've ever been to Macworld Expo and seen fuzzy iPod cases you'll have an idea what I'm talking about) is overtaken by popup ads with titles like these:

  • Used Erections
  • I can't Believe It's not Medicine
  • Discount Scrotums
  • Save $$ Dollar Signs $$
  • Low Low Savings
  • π For the Price of ι
  • Watch Comedy Central

Bender is, not coincidentally, target-marketed with numerous porn come-ons, including "!! Free !! Nude Pictures of Yourself!!" The one that really grabs his attention, however, is titled: "Get RICH Watching Porn!" He opens that one.

Before going any further, Bender's "computer" (all this takes place inside his shiny metal head) displays a huge danger warning (with alarm siren and lights) asking to perform a virus scan (with "No" and "Yes" buttons). Bender's response: "Pffft. I'm waitin' for porn over here." He clicks "No." Needless to say, a virus is downloaded, and Bender is taken over by the iObey obedience virus. A robot once capable of independent action has now become a true "bot."

Up to this point, the spam thread in the film story has been a reflection of the way things are in this century. But then the story adds an element that expresses—in a single, made-up word—one of my own Spam Wars and spamwars.com causes with regard to training email users about handling unsolicited email safely.

Professor Hubert Farnsworth, mad-ish scientist and founder of Planet Express, tells the staff that thanks to his illegally-installed keylogging software, he has discovered that everyone has been giving out personal identity information over the Internet. To counter this activity, he calls for a mandatory security training session.

Oh, yes, yes, yes, yes (no asterisk)! Now there is an idea that is a millennium ahead of where most organizations are today. Email and other types of messages that slip through existing technological barriers are the primary vectors to theft of computer services, passwords, proprietary data, and identities. Yet training email and IM users how to identify attacks and what to do about them is almost non-existent. To be effective, such training must be commanded from on high, having a true corporate commitment. Such training should be given in a place whose name is aptly coined by Professor Farnsworth:

The Mandatorium

What a beautiful word!

When it comes to online safety training, you can't even lead a horse to the trough, much less make it drink. In Spam Wars, I relate a true story about the Attorney General of Colorado who organized a personal appearance for himself at a senior center to speak about scams aimed especially at senior citizens. We're talking the real AG, not some rummy from his office. The total attendance at the event: one news reporter. Potential victims believe they can't be scammed, yet they lack the true awareness of the clever social engineering tricks that continue to be successful enough for the crooks to keep applying them.

Email safety training is a topic that falls into a bizarre category: Those who need it most don't know they need it and are all the more vulnerable to attacks through that avenue. That's why the FTC and other organizations can put up Internet safety web sites from now until, well, the 31st century, but won't attract the audience that needs the information the most. By the time someone has the need to search for the FTC site on, say, phishing or 419 scams, it is way too late.

In the Futurama scene in the Mandatorium, Farnsworth starts the session with good information, demonstrating which Subject: lines should be treated as suspicious. But, this being Futurama, he runs into trouble by believing he has won the Spanish National Lottery—despite acknowledging that he never entered it and ignoring warnings from his staff not to do it. He supplies not only collateral funds to claim the prize, but gives up his bank account number, his mother's maiden name, and even his mother's bank account number. His "e-signature" eventually winds up on a deed transfer, handing his company over to the Scammer Aliens.

Fear not, potential customers for my Email Safety 101 Course: When I teach your staff about spammer and scammer tricks, I won't fall into the same trap Farnsworth does. <sarcasm>Lotteries from the Netherlands have much better prizes.</sarcasm>

To the Mandatorium, everyone!

Posted on November 29, 2007 at 03:52 PM