Spam, viruses and shooting your mouth off

COMMENTARY--Columnist Paul Sheehan wrote in today's Sydney Morning Herald about the MyDoom virus, spam, and the SCO-Linux battle. These issues are obviously connected, but Sheehan's explanation demonstrates so poor and convoluted an understanding of the issues, one wonders why he didn't ensure the brain was in gear before engaging the mouth (or keyboard).

COMMENTARY--Columnist Paul Sheehan wrote in today's Sydney Morning Herald about the MyDoom virus, spam, and the SCO-Linux battle. These issues are obviously connected, but Sheehan's explanation demonstrates so poor and convoluted an understanding of the issues, one wonders why he didn't ensure the brain was in gear before engaging the mouth (or keyboard).

After some predictable references to penis enlargement, Sheehan blames MyDoom on "an ideological war" involving "combatants from the strange new alliances and belief systems spun out of the Internet revolution". Although MyDoom targets the SCO and Microsoft Web sites, it's overstating the point a tad to call the victims of MyDoom civilian casualties in a war between SCO and Linux proponents.

The explanation that follows in the article is a catalogue of appalling oversimplifications, blatant factual errors, flagrant misuses of terminology, and missing the point completely. To be fair, a few parts of some sentences are not entirely incorrect. But if you can't see the problems with a claim like "SCO owns Unix, a major operating system for using the Internet", you should probably stick to making dick jokes instead of writing about technology issues.

After reading Sheehan's column, a reader unfamiliar with the topic would be none the wiser about why SCO is threatening to sue Linux users, what the connection is between Unix and Linux, or what -- if anything -- this has to do with spam. But they would know for sure that it's all the fault of some guy in New Zealand.

Security software vendors are currently talking up the "threat" of what they term "the convergence of viruses and spam". Oh, and conveniently, the same vendors just happen to sell antivirus and antispam software.

Security-company FUD aside, the only thing e-mail viruses and spam have in common is that they arrive in your mailbox against your wishes. Viruses contain malicious code that can take over your computer and cause damage; spam contains malicious advertising that can annoy you. Virus writers are motivated by everything from political ideology to the need for recognition; spammers are only motivated by profits.

If there was an ad message containing malicious code that hijacked your computer to send out more ad messages, that would be a convergence of viruses and spam. It hasn't happened . . . yet. MyDoom is perhaps motivated by commercial concerns, or at least anti-commercial ones, but it's still not spam.

Despite the tenuousness of this connection, Sheehan claims "Now the world of spam has spawned malevolent mutations, worms and viruses, causing billions of dollars in economic damage." Forgive me for introducing a fact into the argument, but viruses predate spam by at least 10 years. Also, those billions of dollars in "economic damage" are only so much security company fluff; such figures are based on dubious calculations of "lost productivity" and other bogeymen touted by the security industry, and they ignore how much more money security vendors make every time consumers and business managers get the willies scared out of them by the latest virus beat-up.

Sheehan takes it upon himself to crucify one particular high-profile spammer, even publishing the man's home address. Sheehan claims that "a few people are stuffing [the Internet] up for millions of others". The inference couldn't be clearer: spam is the result of a few socially irresponsible cranks, if we got rid of them, everything would be fine. By the way, here's where one lives.

This move is as futile as it is journalistically irresponsible. Pillorying identifiable spammers will have no effect on the volume of spam, just as passing antispam laws will make no difference; if there's a buck in it, someone will find a way.

Perhaps this is not worth getting worked up over; after all "mainstream media doesn't get technology" is right up there with "dog bites man" and "sky is blue" in terms of news value. But particularly in an organisation that employs capable IT journalists who could explain the situation in terms even a newspaper columnist could understand, writing this sort of ignorant twaddle without checking your facts is inexcusable.

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