Sunday, August 30, 2009

Spam, Hoaxes, Attachments, & Chain Email - A Primer
(by Richard @ Bizmarts)

These all begin with some emotional trigger such as: "You have been selected...", or "Please forward this important information to...", or any number of similar titles and lead-ins to an email message - and should be treated as you would any piece of unsolicited correspondence - toss immediately into the nearest trash can.

The PC revolution is well into it's thirtieth year of existence, so there is no comfortable justification for a computer user to fail to understand the basic principles of email; or if they do, for those outside the "newbie" box to succumb to the allure of contributing their personal efforts to the propagation of this cyberjunk.

Email was originally designed specifically as a person-to-person electronically enhanced conversation between two people. Only later was the capability of sending messages from a person to a group added. Early email efforts were centered on making sure a message was delivered to its intended target, and only to that target. The remnants of that early system still are part of the email process, by the host system requiring a valid username and password for access to the message.

Unfortunately, when the capability of sending messages to a group became available it morphed into the ability to send email messages to undefined addresses. Instead of sending a message to: joeblow@aol.com the sender could say (send it to anyone)@aol.com

This was the genesis of spam - unsolicited email. Since there was the potential for fraudulent activity in this kind of transmission, the sender soon found ways of disguising their real identity.

Later in the email systems development came the ability to attach a file to an email message. This was, and continues to be, the primary propagation method for malware: viruses, trojans, adware, and the like. By "clicking" on the attachment, it became activate on the host computer, either as a data file: like a photo, a worksheet, or a malware application.

The past and present state of computer software assumes an intelligent actor, meaning that the software must assume the user "wants to do what they initiate". Some users would "look at" the file attachment name for some indication what the file was. If it was titled "photo123.jpg" they believed it was a photo and "clicked" on it to open it. However, the bad guys soon learned to disguise the name: "photo123.jpg%4%g%f.exe" which could become a malware application.

Hoaxes and chain email letters are "broadcast" messages, sent from a disguised address to a group of people, generally with a disguised purpose. Senders have a working knowledge of basic human psychology and tailor their message to achieve some effect or generate an emotive response.

Whether it is to convince someone that a rich man somewhere in Nigeria wants to send them money, to a claim that something with which they agree or disagree is gaining attention in the mass media. In almost all case, the sender urges the reader to do something. Forward the message on to everyone in the receivers address book, send targeted emails to other specific email addresses, or to contact someone else for instructions of how to claim millions of dollars in some venture.

During, and subsequent to national elections another crop of emails appear, exhorting the faithful to oppose some provision of the opposition party, or by providing verbal justification for partisan objectives. Generally they target an individual, not a Party - since the electorate is essentially split 50/50 - so wrongful targeting of a message can do more harm than good.

Within the past dozen years, several website appeared which attempted to provide neutral facts; Wikipedia for an encyclopedic look at anything, to Ask.com for subjective information, to Epinions.com for reviews on products, to Snopes.com or MediaMatters.com for evaluation of mass media and political discourse.

No-one wants to be viewed, or considered a fool, or a puppet of biased reporting of facts and opinions; yet it has been amply proven that people will strenuously believe, support, and disseminate information which they believe to be true - regardless of it's actual objective veracity, and in fact, will not even acknowledge the possibility their understanding of the facts may be incorrect.

There was a website called: UrbanLegends.com which specialized in debunking the claims contained in "chain emails". The current iteration of this website is called: snopes.com - and is the first resource for those inclined to participate in forwarding information from untested sources to personal friends and family. Before forwarding chain emails we strongly suggest checking with snopes.com, or equivalent, about the message contents.

There is another simple method of testing the veracity of an email broadcast message: copy the first line of the received email, in quotation marks, into the search box at Google.com

These topical measures are suitable for many email broadcast appeals, and can also demonstrate that what may initially appear as facts are more accurately shown to be opinions.

This leads us then to the question of how to respond to "chain emails" sent to ones email in-box. Since we have seen in the discussion above, that a sender can disguise their address, the contents of any attachments, and the quality of the "facts" contained in the email it is incumbent on the receiver to be vigilant in doing anything with the subject email message.

Does the receiver fully intend to present this information to others, without reservation, in an unsolicited manner? In an email client selecting "Copy All/Reply All" is not a private message: it will be sent to everyone initially referenced in the address line. Is it likely that everyone on the mailing list will be favorably disposed to the reception of such messages?

Finally, what is a receiver to do with the reception of emails, especially from family and friends, that contain falsehoods, biases, dishonesty, or even heavily biased propaganda and opinions.

We stand for speaking truth, being fair, and using logic to respond, while not resorting to illogical or defamatory replies. It may be possible to -gently- guide the sender toward rationality, and truth. While remembering that anything non-physical or tangible may have more than one truth set as defined by the scientific method, and as the comedian Bill Cosby reminded us, even God was not positive about the facts of why Adam and Eve behaved as they did in the Garden.

Cheers & Be Gentle With One Another
-rwp-

ps: This ignores the situation where a friend or family member continues to forward the really obnoxious, false, vile, ad hominem laced diatribes against someone they should know you favor, or support. It's almost feels like they are baiting you to jump on their posts - but if you do, they simply ignore your replies, arguments, and supporting documentation.

Clearly something else is required. I'm of the -opinion- that quoting verifiable truths back at them is the only way to respond. But don't think for a moment they will normally accept your truths, regardless of how well documented and reported. Whether they listen to your information or not, in truth, should not matter to you. You have done your part in providing factual information. Whatever anyone else does with it is entirely up to them.

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