Walking straight into it….

Lord Norton

_39082269_lordsstill_300In Question Time on Thursday, there was a question about taking steps to ensure that people over 60 are able to access the Internet.  Towards the end,  there was an interesting exchange:

Lord Mackenzie of Framwellgate: My Lords, is my noble friend aware that, as a person over 60, I am continually bombarded with spam emails?  They are always the same and are usually about penile extensions, Viagra or inkjet cartridges.  Do I look like a man who requires inkjet cartridges?

A noble Lord: Yes!”

13 comments for “Walking straight into it….

  1. 30/06/2009 at 5:31 am

    Brilliant! Was it you who shouted the reply, Lord Norton?

    The noble Lord tried so hard to avoid saying something silly, missing everything but ‘ink cartridges’. Frankly though, I feel his pain, if everything landing in my Inbox were true, I’d take some tablets, get a body like an Adonis, have a permanent and massive erection, have a bevvy of supermodels clinging to my arm, be constantly completing urgent updates to my bank account details, all while making millions thanks to the death of some doctor in Nigeria.

    It’s like Alice in Erectile Dysfunction Land, or Through the Junk Folder

    But on a less silly note, and I hope the above isn’t too risque, spammers try adding random bits of text to e-mails with the aim of fooling filtering software. Also, I have a filter that shows any e-mails with ‘house of lords’ in the text, imagine my surprise when a spam e-mail appeared in there! Turns out a spam e-mail was sent out that mentioned the House of Lords.

    So, bet you had no idea the House of Lords was unknowingly used to advertise Viagra!

    One other thing, on the subject of spam: it will probably not go away until poverty is eradicated. The Internet is a social-leveller. A spammer is able to contact a million people, and even if they only make one sale they still make a profit.

    There’s no class divide, anywhere; a poor man in Nigeria can directly sell ink cartridges to a peer of the realm. 🙂 It’s very powerful, while it does have disadvantages they’re minor annoyances. I don’t believe the over 60’s can afford to be without the Internet.

  2. howridiculous
    30/06/2009 at 7:20 am

    Dear Lord Norton,

    The noble Lord wasn’t Lady Trumpington was it?!


  3. Croft
    30/06/2009 at 8:55 am

    Liam: I fear you are mistaken on the causality of spam. The majority is still (depending on whose figures you trust) from the USA – or at least IP addresses controlled or directed via. Most sources on those terms give the US causing something like 40-55% of the spam over the last 10 years.

    Indeed OECD countries account for ~80% of the global spam. So it is not a poor Nigerian whose generally spamming you but sophisticated criminal gangs or companies based in much richer western countries.

    On a parliamentary note some of this is totally avoidable and within the control of MPS and peers to do something about. Increasingly companies make it exceedingly difficult to prevent your details (including e-mail) from being sold to third parties. Favoured tactics used by many big UK businesses include long scripted messages when you are arranging billing with a call centre where within a long ‘legal jargon section’ they bury a phrase like ‘and we may pass on your details to reputable partners’ which many people don’t notice. The other favourite is a form which states in the small print they will do the same unless you contact them in writing. These are then not just opt out systems but opt outs that require time and cost on the customer to use.

  4. lordnorton
    30/06/2009 at 11:00 am

    Liam: The issue of spam is certainly a serious one. Take this site, for example: we have had over 4,500 legitimate comments, and these have appeared, but the site has received in excess of 16,000 spam e-mails, almsot all of them caught by the spam filter.

    Croft: You raise a very important point about the selling of e-mail addresses. Perhaps it is something I should pursue. There is also the problem of replying to unwanted e-mails: this merely serves to confirm that your e-mail address is a live one.

    Howridiculous: I fear I do not know the name of the observant peer!

  5. baronessmurphy
    30/06/2009 at 11:39 am

    It isn’t just men who get the endless Viagra ads, and I too could “satisfy more women” with the dozens of penile extensions I am offered, I’ve recently had dozens of “degrees for sale” offered to me but I’ve probably got too many already. But the parliamentary spam filters are excellent for our parliamentary e-mail. Actually it’s some of the real e-mails that are the pain in the neck; those circulated to every single peer in the House without a thought as to the ‘inbox blocking’ potential. If all peers followed the rule, ‘don’t send circulars’ it would help enormously.

    • Croft
      30/06/2009 at 1:44 pm

      baronessmurphy: The usual problem with so much spam is that many firms and educational establishments filters sensitivity is set so high or so black/white they needlessly block many legitimate e-mails. When the parliamentary filter system started it had great fun blocking e-mails of parts of bills containing ‘banned’ language. It’s difficult to give examples here as we may run into the same problems. Sc*nthorpe (North Lincolnshire) widespread issues with filters is so famous it’s had an internet ‘problem’ named after it. (google the above town name + problem for examples)

      It’s a real bind. Either you have an automated filter which has a high initial expense is cheap to run but produces regular ridiculous bans/blocks or some poor IT department member spends all day sifting the wheat from the chaff. Something of the same is true here where the authorisation system for posts – while understandable – is probably fast giving the administrators/moderators RSI!

      Either way spam is only going to get worse as long as most governments do little to protect data which is a key link in the chain.

  6. Croft
    30/06/2009 at 12:02 pm

    Lord Norton: I fear the lobbyists efforts against proposals to protect the electoral register would be similar against any attempt to prohibit/restrict op-out data selling. It is though a serious problem both in terms of your rights to control your data/privacy but in the cost to both the private citizen and business in time/money spent on anti-spam efforts.

    • ladytizzy
      30/06/2009 at 7:26 pm

      Croft, stop fearing, puhleaze. Say what you want, and get on with it.

  7. lordnorton
    30/06/2009 at 2:33 pm

    Croft: I should mention that I do check the spam on this site, just in case. The odd genuine message has occasionally found its way there, but the occasions are very rare.

  8. 30/06/2009 at 7:12 pm

    Croft: I agree that most spam is sent from the US, probably because they have the most consumer-grade computers, running Windows, which are part of the botnets used to send the spam. Also, most Web sites[1] are hosted in the US too, and the machines hosting Web sites usually form the command and control network of botnets[2].

    Who owns the botnets is a different matter, something those Spamhaus statistics don’t seem to cover. Although I picked on Nigeria, no-one knows for sure, the software is probably written and run by people from Russia, China and some east European countries. RBN, are a famous example.

    So it is not a poor Nigerian whose generally spamming you but sophisticated criminal gangs or companies based in much richer western countries.

    Agreed. However, what proof is there that legitimate Western businesses are giving information to the controllers of botnets? Personally, the reason I get spam is because I own several Web sites, so my personal information is available publically (thanks ICANN). Their lordships probably get spam due to their e-mail addresses being published on various Web sites.

    I could be wrong, but I don’t believe personal information is being sold by legitimate British businesses to Russian/Chinese spammers. It doesn’t follow the spammers’ pattern of work, most of the addresses on these mailing lists seem to come from trawling through Web pages, looking for addresses.

    [1] Granted – numer of domains doesn’t translate directly into number of servers, but you get the jist.

    [2] Not trying to be patronising here by the way, am attempting to write in a way that non-geeks can follow, but at the same time not sound derogatory. 🙂

  9. Senex
    30/06/2009 at 7:58 pm

    This is like the multilingual Tory who was asked if being a member of the EC meant being incontinent. Oui! Oui! Came the reply.

    Spam filters have undergone an evolution of late. At first they employed user defined lookup lists plus primitive AI to define spam. This technique worked but was notorious for errors especially by the AI. Things changed with the advent of community based spam filtering.

    From the link below:

    “While the design is quite complex, the concepts behind its operation are simple. Users submit fingerprints of messages they believe to be spam to a central system. If enough members of the community agree that the content is spam, then the central system labels the fingerprint as truly representing spam. Each piece of e-mail received can be checked against this list to determine if it is spam or not. Just like in the real-world human community, individuals who behave well by quickly and correctly identifying spam become trusted, and are rewarded by having their opinions weighted more heavily in the future.”

    Its particular strength is that individual emails cannot be spam unless the community makes it so. Democracy wins the day once more.

    As for spam and peddling erectile dysfunction drugs, the fact that such drugs exist is nothing short of a blessing for those couples where the man is afflicted by the condition. Brazilian footballer Pele, another sufferer, is involved with product advertising and patient awareness education. In doing so he has to suffer from the sexual bigotry of his fellow men on a regular basis.

    Its ironic that these drugs produce the chemical Nitrous Oxide (NO), laughing gas in order for them to work, when the condition is no laughing matter at all. Trials of these drugs on women have not been a success. The link below states: “Sex remains 90% between the ears”, another unfortunate statement, that means getting into the right frame of mind is a Viagra all of its own.

    Readers are advised to refer to the health warnings given in the link below before taking such drugs. Always seek medical advise before taking such drugs.

    Ref: Why Conventional Anti-Virus Techniques Won’t Stop new threats
    Are The “Magic New Pills” For Erectile Dysfunction Really Magic?

  10. Croft
    01/07/2009 at 8:35 am

    Liam: Evidence in this area is by its very nature rather tricky. The argument is not that business X is selling your data to a criminal gang directly or intentionally. There are two problems, many of the data processing centres are for cost reasons in countries where they can get the cheapest labour costs so are the most susceptible to bribery to sell the data but also because too many companies sell the data on with no real data control and monitoring in place. So the data is passed on and sold in turn from one company to another presenting enough links for one bad company to abuse the data or as above ample room for theft.

  11. 05/07/2009 at 4:08 pm

    I have an admission to make in that I have recently sent an email circular to about a dozen members on the sexual offences aspects (Part 2) of the Policing and Crime Bill. They were members I had good reason to believe were interested in the topic.

    As this was ‘unsolicited mail’ I suppose one might not unreasonably classify it as spam. It was not commercial – I have nothing to gain personally from the passage or otherwise of Part 2 – but it was unsolicited.

    There again, I can honestly look myself in the mirror and say that the sin of omission in not sending it would, in my opinion, be greater than the sin of commission in sending it, and that the links I provided in it – to relevant resolutions of the Council of Europe, relevant BBC stories etc – could make a significant contribution to informing debate.

    I’m pleased to say I did receive a couple of acknowledgements and thanks, each of which showed the recipients to have absorbed the information.

    As a very amateur lobbyist, based well away from London in North Wales, this thread and the issues of spam raises disconcerting questions. It is always a question of balance and trying to draw lines, but the marks that one must not overstep are unclear.

    I think back to how I received this list of Noble Members, for example. It originated from a list compiled and circulated by the prohibitionist lobby, who are pushing for Part 2 and to make it as tough as possible (ie opposing our position), and circulated to our Yahoo list by a fellow member. So it was “captured material” so to speak, sadly for the capacity of the inboxes of the Noble Members concerned.

    The question I pose myself is whether effective communication is taking place, and whether this lobbying informs debate. Certainly if the general reaction of Members (or, more often than not I suspect, their assistants) is to consign large quantites of material to the spam tray then it would surely suit everyone to consider trying to establish communication by some other method that is more Member-centered, so to speak.

    One might envisage, for example, moderated net forums for each clause of, in this case, Part 2 of the Policing and Crime Bill, in which pros and cons and wording and amendments may be discussed, forums which become recognised channels of lobbying, which Noble Members may come to see as resources.

    I would suggest such forums would greatly enhance accessibility to the legislative process, well beyond Westminster.

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