Don't Buy (Ad Space) from Spammers

PERSPECTIVE Imagine the uproar if Symantec bought advertising banners at VX Heavens, an underground Web site for computer virus writers. Or if Verisign paid for ad space at Carders Portal, a favorite site of phishing scammers. Even worse, what if both security companies were promoting how-to books about writing viruses or conducting identity theft?

People would rightly be asking, whose side are these guys on, anyway? Why are they giving money and weapons to the enemy? (The paranoid have long suspected antivirus software companies of supporting virus-writers in order to keep business going strong.)

Those same questions were on my mind last week when I spotted a new ad at SpecialHam.com, a Web site where spammers get together and trade e-mail lists, line up "bulletproof" Web hosting, and otherwise make deals. A large banner ad promoting a new book from Syngress called Inside the Spam Cartel currently appears in the "Sponsor" section on the SpecialHam homepage. Other sponsors in the banner rotation include Blackbox Hosting, a notorious firm that provides Web sites to spammers, and Send-Safe, a Russian company that makes spam-sending software.

According to the book's cover, Spam Cartel is a guide for "security professionals, law enforcement, hackers, and programmers" who want to learn about "the dark side" of spam, presumably to better protect Internet users from junk e-mail.

So, why the ads at SpecialHam? If Spam Cartel truly is any good at revealing how spammers work (nearly a fourth of the book is devoted to defeating spam filters), won't promoting the book at SpecialHam hurt the efforts of spam fighters, even as the ads line the pockets of the site's operators?

The book's author is anonymous and claims to be a spammer, so I don't expect him to lose any sleep over the ethics of advertising at a spammer site. But the stakes are a little different for the book's technical editor, Jeffrey Posluns, and the fellow who wrote the Foreward, Stu Sjouwerman. Posluns is a certified information security professional (CISSP), while Sjouwerman runs Sunbelt Software, a company that sells anti-spam software. Both would seem to have a clear conflict of interest if they were to aid and abet spammers.

Now, I've always been a big believer in full disclosure. I see no point in trying to repress information about vulnerabilities in software systems. So I don't object in principle to Spam Cartel spilling the beans about how to be a spammer. (In the near future, I hope to do a proper review of whether it succeeds in that task.)

What bothers me is the duplicity. You can't claim to be educating people for battle against junk email, while at the same time giving both money and weapons to spammers. With these ads, it's crystal clear whose side Spam Cartel is on.

Editor's note: After this piece was originally posted, Syngress Publishing issued the following statement:

"Neither Syngress nor any of our associates sponsored the banner ad on SpecialHam.com in any way, shape, or form. We were completely unaware that it existed before seeing mention of it in your article. We are currently doing everything possible to have the banner removed. We do not in any way condone the spam trade and absolutely none of our marketing efforts or dollars are going towards any Web site, magazine, group, etc to support the spam trade or to entice them to buy our book."

Brian McWilliams is a journalist and author of Spam Kings: The real story behind the high-rolling hucksters pushing porn, pills, and @*#?% enlargements.

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