Proof that the Internet can be a sick and scary place descended on Calgary this week in the form of a vicious online attack on a Calgary businessman.
Somebody really has it in for Troy Verhaeghe and his Aspen Tree Service company. “It started as harassing phone calls,” says the Calgary arborist. “Somebody would fill up my messages by letting the radio play, or there would be heavy breathing. Then I went in to work Monday morning and people showed me this horrible webpage.”
The site had Verhaeghe’s name at the top, and contained racist and anti-Semitic views and epithets. It also provided links to “White Power” sites such as Stormfront. It even featured a hate site directed specifically at kids. What’s worse, according to Verhaeghe, is that someone sent e-mails to other arborists in his name, urging them to “go visit my new website.”
Verhaeghe says he immediately called police, who are investigating the case, and he believes they have now tracked down the computer that created the offending page. It was posted on Geocities, a free webpage hosting service run by Yahoo.
He says he’s received lots of calls expressing support for his fight against whoever did this. But, disturbingly, he’s also had at least one call from someone who agreed with the racist views and wanted him to “come over and give me an estimate.”
Verhaeghe says he’s not going there. And he adds: “This has been a terrible experience. I wouldn’t wish this on anyone.”
The offensive page is no longer available, but Verhaeghe doesn’t feel safe until the person who did this is caught. “What bothers me,” he says, “is that he could do it again. He could just go create aspentreeservice1 or something and put child porn or something up there using my name.”
Large companies have also been victims of corporate identity theft. Using a technique called “phishing,” criminals create a website that impersonates a legitimate online business. They then attempt to get customers to enter banking information, passwords and credit card numbers.
One Calgary business that relies on eBay to sell its products received an e-mail warning that its eBay account would be suspended unless they replied, giving certain information. A call to eBay proved that the message was false. The Bank of Montreal, CIBC and Caisse Desjardins have all been targeted by “phishers,” some believed to be operating from Russia.
And if the identity thieves don’t get you, the virus writers just might. Jack Sebbag, Canadian general manager of anti-virus software maker Network Associates, spoke this week at an information session sponsored by the University of Calgary. His main topic was the latest virus headache, MyDoom.
“It’s now touted as the ‘King of Viruses,’ having set all kinds of records,” he says. He claims MyDoom “infected 22 per cent of all computers worldwide, and infected one in every 10 e-mails.”
Sebbag says it isn’t nasty in the sense that it will reformat your hard disk, but it does cause a major performance degradation on networks such as by mailing itself to thousands of people.
“It uses the infected machine to propagate itself, using addresses in the address book. This thing is also creating e-mail addresses ad hoc so that it created a lot more traffic as well, as e-mails directed to non-existent mailboxes bounced back to the unwitting sender.”
Also, according to the Network Associates website, “MyDoom opens a connection on TCP port 3127, suggesting remote access capabilities.” In other words, somebody might use it to take over your computer from afar.
One noticeable feature of MyDoom is that you may be getting irate messages from other people’s virus checkers saying that you just sent them an infected file.
Of course, you might have the virus, but then again it could just be that somebody had you in their address book and MyDoom grabbed your address to plug in as the sender.
One of the morals of this story is that you can’t trust the “From” field of e-mails. Just last week, I got one from email@example.com, but I doubt George W. is really trying to reach me. In any case, he’d better line up with all the other creeps who are invading my cyberspace. Especially the spammers.
Now, Bill Gates is a pretty smart guy, and he should have some idea how to end problems such as spam. Maybe he does. At the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, he outlined three techniques that might rid the world of spam by 2006:
* The sender might be sent a challenge problem that only a human can work out. You may have seen these “prove you are human” boxes that have handwritten-looking numbers and letters that are difficult for machines to read, but easy for human eyes and brains.
* The sender might have to do a different mathematical puzzle for each recipient, which Gates claims would overwhelm a spammer’scomputers. Perhaps, but with computer power getting dirt cheap, they could easily buy, say, a few hundred Pentiums just for this purpose.
* The sender might get charged for each e-mail sent. Hitting them in the pocketbook does sound like the best idea. You would set a threshold fee for strangers who want to send you an e-mail. If it was from a long-lost relative, you could just cancel the charge. But if it was an offer to enlarge your garden hose, the spammer would have to pay you to read it. Nice if you can enforce it.
Perhaps the real answer to some of these problems is to fundamentally rethink not only our technology, but our values. A lot of the bad stuff on the Internet is driven by irrational greed (spam, some viruses,) boredom (viruses and hacking,) and hate (webpage
defacement.) With all the great tools available to us, maybe we should be looking for some higher purpose than just
making a buck or two off the ’Net.
Troy Verhaeghe certainly thinks so. As he tries to put his Internet misadventure behind him, he’s looking forward to climbing trees again.
“It’s a passion for me,” he says, “and it’s really a pleasure to work with something that’s alive.”
(Tom Keenan is a professor at the University of Calgary and an expert on technology and its social implications. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org)