• U.S.


3 minute read
Philip Elmer-Dewitt

THE FIRST SIGN THAT SOMETHING WAS wrong came Sunday afternoon, when I logged on to the Internet to check my weekend E-mail and found that someone had enrolled me in a Barry Manilow fan club, a Mercedes-owners discussion group, a Fiji Islands–appreciation society and 103 other Internet mailing lists I’d never heard of. I knew from experience that any one of these lists can generate 50 messages a day. To avoid a deluge of junk E-mail, I painstakingly unsubscribed from all 106–even Barry Manilow’s–only to log on Monday morning and discover I’d been subscribed overnight to 1,700 more. My file of unread E-mail had swelled to 16 megabytes, and was growing by the minute.

I’d heard about “spam”–Internet jargon for machine-generated junk mail–and over the years I’d received my share of E-mail chain letters, get-rich-quick pitches and cheesy magazine ads. But I had never experienced anything like this: a parade of mail that just got bigger and bigger, like Mickey’s brooms in Fantasia. Not only was I getting hundreds of subscription notices, but I was also receiving copies of every piece of mail posted to those lists. By Monday the E-mail was pouring in at the rate of four a minute, 240 an hour, 5,760 a day.

The rest of the week was what my parents used to call a learning experience. The first thing I learned was how little I knew about Internet mailing lists. They don’t get as much press as the more glamorous World Wide Web, but these lists are every bit as active and in some ways much more satisfying. Subscribing to a good mailing list is like entering into heartfelt correspondence with world-class letter writers. Every day brings a fresh crop of E-mail from people who share your particular obsessions, be they garden herbs or firearms or the novels of Anne Rice. And if you ever tire of their daily epistles, you simply unsubscribe–that is, if you remember to save the sign-off instructions.

The next thing I learned was that I was not alone. Thirty-five other Internet addresses were targeted last week, ranging from the prestigious president@whitehouse.gov to the evocative rage@us.disarray.com The victims included the New York Times’ chief Silicon Valley reporter, two leading hacker magazines, a couple of interns at MTV and a man who once ran a Hell’s Angels computer bulletin board. Gene Steinberg, a free-lance writer from Scottsdale, Arizona, is convinced that he made the hit list because he publicly defended America Online on a Usenet newsgroup called alt.aol.sucks.

“This is clearly someone who’s got too much time on his hands,” says hacker Emmanuel Goldstein, publisher of 2600 magazine, who got hit twice (in his letters and articles mailboxes) and would have been struck a third time if the perpetrator hadn’t misspelled his name. Goldstein wrote a simple program that canceled most of his subscriptions. “It’s like stepping in dog droppings,” he says. “You change your shoes and get on with your day.”

The rest of us are not so adept. The White House called in the Secret Service. I had to get help from my local Internet provider, which managed to reduce the flow to about 50 messages an hour. Who knows what’s going on at the congressional E-mailbox of Newt Gingrich, another victim? He has an automated-reply program that answers every E-mail that comes in. At week’s end, millions of his form letters were still being beamed to Internet users all over the world.

–By Philip Elmer-DeWitt

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