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By Joel Klebanoff

Cut-Rate and Other Parasites

In the 1942 movie Casablanca, Peter Lorre's character, Ugarte, a sleazy man who profited from selling exit visas to refugees trying to escape war-ravaged Europe, rationalized his deeds in a conversation with Humphrey Bogart's character, Rick.

"But think of all those poor refugees who must rot in this place if I didn't help them," said Ugarte. "Well, that's not so bad. Through ways of my own, I provide them with exit visas."

"For a price, Ugarte," responded Rick. "For a price."

"But think of all the poor devils who can't meet Renault's [the somewhat corrupt but loveable chief of police, Captain Louis Renault, played by Claude Rains] price," answered Ugarte. "I get it for them for half. Is that so…parasitic?"

"I don't mind a parasite," declared Rick. "I object to a cut-rate one."

For the record, I'm considerably less than thrilled with all parasites, cut-rate or otherwise.

Before people stop reading in order to immediately dash off vicious emails to MC Press complaining about that nutcase Klebanoff who is, once again, spouting an endless stream of nonsense that has nothing whatsoever to do with technology, let me launch right into it. It seems that cut-rate parasites are alive and well right here in the real world, not just in the fiction of Rick's Café Américain, and some of them are computer programmers.

According to a September 1, 2005, Washington Post article, any scumbag (my word, not theirs) that (I use "that" rather than "who" because I don't consider these creatures to be of the human species) wants to foist spyware on us but is not content with one of the many, according to the article, readily available off-the-shelf products, can buy a custom-developed spyware program for about $600 from a group of Russian programmers that (ditto on the "that" versus "who") go by the name of Rat Systems. While the article suggests that a few legitimate uses for this software exist, some of it is being employed to commit electronic robbery.

If you're thinking that I'm complaining about spyware development being outsourced offshore to a bunch of low-wage Russian programmers, you're way off base. Heck, you're not even on the same planet as the base. In fact, I'd be exceptionally proud if I thought for one minute that none of it was being developed onshore. My point is that the creatures that surreptitiously foist evil spyware on us, and the programmers that support them, are parasites. I don't care where they're located. They're parasites. And while I dislike parasites of all stripes I, like Rick, particularly hate cut-rate ones.

Why do I hate cut-rate parasites more than the high-priced variety? I hate them because they make their wares affordable for a wider market of second-string parasites.

If all of the more malevolent spyware — some of which is designed to capture credit card numbers in order to steal from us — cost $6,000,000 instead of $600, most of the scum that buy it would quickly crawl back under the rocks they came from and leave us decent folk alone. Either that or they would go back to robbing banks and convenience stores at gunpoint, extorting money, selling drugs, or living off of the earnings of prostitution like they did in the good old days. Technology is helping to keep their hands clean while they roll in the mud. Isn't progress grand? (If the voice inside your head didn’t read the last few sentences with a tone of sarcasm, please go back and do so now.)

These lowlifes are despicable, but their crimes are like shoplifting compared to the crimes against humanity committed by some other parasites. I started writing this week's tirade a couple of days after the maelstrom of Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath struck southern Mississippi, Alabama, and Louisiana. I spend a considerable amount of time crafting these columns (right about now, my critics are expressing astonishment over that disclosure), and then they're edited and slotted into the regular weekly publishing schedule. I probably took longer than average to write this tirade because I had to put it aside for a while to let some of my emotions settle out. Consequently, you likely won't read this until close to two weeks after the event, so forgive me if some of it is out-of-date.

What got me so angry? Even just a couple of days after disaster struck, I had already read about some contemptible characters that (see above concerning the use of "that" rather than "who"), just one day after Katrina hit, had already set up bogus Web sites that looked like legitimate charities. The aim of these sites was to abscond with money from people who, despairing over the suffering, wanted to help the victims.

Think about this. A very large group of people were rendered homeless, lost everything they owned and, in many cases, are suffering physically or have already died. A much larger group of people around the world have — through their televisions, newspapers, and the Internetwitnessed the suffering and are desperate to help. Yet a third, thankfully much smaller, group wants to get between the first two groups in order to divert into their own pockets the money that the second group wants to provide to help the first.

Don't mistake me. I'm not down on the technologies. As with other recent catastrophes, rather than being just a vehicle for scams, the Internet and other communication technologies have done a wonderful job of accomplishing things like marshalling charitable resources and helping people search for missing loved ones. My anger is not directed toward the technology. It's aimed at those creatures who exploit it for their own gain to the detriment of the people who are suffering. There are no words sufficiently vile to capture their nature.

The diversion of money is probably the worst effect of the deeds perpetrated by these nefarious fiends, but it is not the only negative outcome. Worsening the situation, the knowledge of their existence leads people to be less trusting of even legitimate appeals.

On September 2, I received an email purportedly from Congressman John Culberson of Texas describing the tragedy, the overall relief efforts and, specifically, what the city of Houston was doing to help. It also thanked everyone for their support and provided links to both the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the American Red Cross. Having already seen the reports of bogus requests for support, my immediate reaction was that this was another evil phishing expedition. I was particularly doubtful because I don't live in Texas, I've never lived in Texas and, other than the head office of this publication being in Texas, I haven't done business in that fine state, so I didn't know how the congressman got my email address.

I was about to hit the Delete key but, because I was writing this tirade, I decided to investigate further. I looked at the source code underlying the email. The links appeared to go where they purported to go. I'm not the world's foremost HTML expert, so I thought that maybe I had missed something in the code that redirected the links elsewhere. To test that theory, I did what all of the experts tell you not to do with spam or phishing emails: I clicked on the links. After doing so, I looked carefully at the URL in the address bar of my browser. The link to the Red Cross did seem to take me directly to the legitimate Red Cross site, and the link to FEMA did seem to take me directly to the legitimate FEMA site. Even so, despite all indications pointing to it being a genuine, compassionate missive, I was still dubious, thinking that a phisher might have been able to disguise its URL in some way that had escaped me.

Before receiving the congressman's note, I had already made a contribution to the Red Cross, without using links received in any emails, so my fear of phishing did not dissuade me from donating. However, there are undoubtedly other people who are on the edge of giving, people who only need the gentle nudge of a heartfelt direct appeal to convince them to make a contribution. Some of them won't get that nudge because they immediately deleted those appeals out of fear of phishing and spam. Thus, in some cases, money that didn't get diverted into the pockets of parasites will still not make it to those people who are suffering simply because the phishers and spammers have overwhelmed potential donors' inboxes and have made them wary.

I have a proposal. Let's tirelessly seek out these parasites. When we find them, let's arrest them, try them, and, if found guilty, deposit them — without food, without clean water, and particularly, without weapons — into the fetid waters that inundated New Orleans after the levees burst. Let's then leave them to fend for themselves. I think that's too good for them, but I'm opposed to capital punishment, so my personal morals prevent me from recommending what they probably deserve.

I'm sorry that this week's tirade is not particularly funny (at about this moment, my critics are saying, "So what else is new?"), but I don't find much comedy in this tragedy. I'll try to return to (or, according to my detractors, start) my humorous columns next week.

This article originally appeared as part of a weekly series of "Tech Tirades" in MC TNT from MC Press Online. The first year's worth of Tech Tirades does not appear here. Instead, you can find them in BYTE-ing Satire.

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