Tuesday, November 30, 2004

Lycos Brings War Games to Your Desktop

Lycos Europe has recently released a screen saver as part of its Make Love Not Spam campaign. This screen saver sends out a request to a website that allegedly is a source of spam. If a large number of screen savers send requests to the same spam site at the same time, Lycos argues, its bandwidth will eventually be consumed, and the site overloaded and slowed down. To prevent the servers of the spam sites to completely stop working, which would constitute an (illegal) denial of service attack, a "health check" is build into the system.

The first reactions to Lycos' initiative have been quite negative. Ed Felten points to some obvious problems with the system:
  • It blurs the line between spammers and users, between the bad & good guys
  • It is a waste of recourses (bandwidth)
  • Attacks may be misdirected at innocent sources: either because they are erroneously on the used spamlist, or because they are innocents framed by the spammers, so called Joe Jobs
  • It is questionable if this tactic is legal
I can only underline the noted problems, but the screen saver does have some strange appeal. I've tried it for the past hours, and its graphics make you feel like you're part of some eighties nuke 'm game. It's War Games on your desktop! You see how the attacks generated by your computer are launched at spammers in foreign countries. Little red lines project the path of your attack on a world map, and statistics show its effect: a barometer depicting the bandwidth of the attacked sites decreases under the load of requests. Red line after red line, launch after launch, you get to feel part of Lycos' anti-spam army. This is not "Make Love Not Spam". This is making war on a global scale. As Felten points out, it is no game at all, and there may be more than a little collateral damage.

This is getting ridiculous: at the moment my screen saver launches its attacks right over the United States, up into space, not hitting any target on earth. A glitch in the server? Or are there any spammers on Mars? Intergalactic spam wars, not in my lifetime!

Update: This explains the attacks into outer space:
A bid by Lycos Europe to launch denial of service attacks on spammers by use of a screensaver has been met with a sharp response - the website which it set up for people to download the screensaver was defaced overnight.

The site, makelovenotspam.com, bore a banner which said "Yes, attacking spammers is wrong, you know this, you shouldn't be doing it. Your ip address and request have been logged and will be reported to your ISP for further action."

I guess I'm in trouble now. I'm sooo scared those spammers will come and get me.

Later: Here's more on the alleged attack.
And now Lycos denies it was ever attacked and says it was a hoax.
Even Later: When activated the screensaver goes black and displays "Stay tuned". A spam site has been redirecting the attacks to Lycos' own site. Now major internet backbones have blocked acces to the makelovenotspam site. And BBC Online reports that the "health check" system may not have prevented a DDoS attack from happening. War Games: game over & out.


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