A Directory of Spam-like Intrusions

A week or so back I wrote in my WSJ.com column about language and the Internet, Evoiding Pedestrian Ways (subscription only, I’m afraid) in which I explored some new words and how they catch on:

People have been coming up with new words for a long time. But the Internet may be shifting the balance, not just in terms of creating words to describe our tech-dominated lives, but in making these new words spread fast — and stick.

I particularly liked how

Words that originated online have started to define life offline, illustrating the shift in descriptive emphasis: Think “snail mail.” Or “face mail,” a pseudodictionary word that refers to “the daring act of talking to someone in person instead of either leaving a voice mail or sending an email.” While spam — a word purloined from British comedy troupe Monty Python to describe unwanted junk email — has now crossed back to describe other real world phenomena, such as unsolicited physical contact (“body spam“) and the blanketing of ads on telephone poles and other public areas (“street spam“).

But why stop there? Here are a few more spam-like, uninvited intrusions into our lives and my suggestions for what we might call them. Other suggestions, or existing words I haven’t come across, very welcome. Apologies if any of these copy or compete with existing terms:

  • Cabin Spam: Inflight announcements promoting duty-free goods that interrupt movies, sleep or emergency evacuation procedures;
  • Ear Spam: Automated telephone marketing;
  • Mat Spam: Junk mail that comes through your letterbox;
  • Hand Spam: Handouts proferred by folk on the street;
  • Eye Spam: DVD intros for other movies you can’t skip over;
  • Spoiler Spam: Movie ads that are too loud, and either too informative about the movie so they spoil it or else so misleading it seems the makers were watching a different movie altogether;
  • Screen Spam: Product placement in movies or TV shows.

Hacking Into Falun Gong’s Email Accounts

Another interesting twist in the allegations of spying and harrassment of Falun Gong members in Australia:

Jeremy Howard of FastMail.FM, a very good and very secure email service run from Australia, tells me the story of how, four years ago, someone, or some people, or some organisation, or some country, tried to hack the accounts of six of his customers who happened to be Falun Gong members.

Jeremy was notified automatically when a host of computers tried guess the passwords of six customers he later found out were Falun Gong practitionera. The attacks were brute force dictionary attacks, meaning that the passwords were being guessed at, one word tried after another. After 100 attempts alarms went off at FastMail, but because the attacks were coming from compromised computers in different places it wasn’t a simple case of thwarting the attack by blocking the computer’s address. “Usually the server locks out an IP address, but these were distributed… so we contacted the users, and we told them that it was happening,” Jeremy says. Their replies surprised him.

“We know where this is coming from,” Jeremy says they told him, “We’re Falun Gong practioners, and our communications get intercepted all the time.” Jeremy solved the problem by setting up secure, anonymous, accounts and aliases (see my post here about aliases; this is another interesting use of them) and, despite another attack a week later, the accounts were never compromised.

So who was behind it? Jeremy has no evidence it was the Chinese government, but he did say he thought whoever did it were pros: “Obviously anybody could do something like this, but we’ve never seen anyone else do so,” he says. “The people involved in this case were more competent and more determined than anybody else we’ve seen.”

Certainly FastMail would seem an obvious target of anyone wanting to monitor overseas activities of the Falun Gong. A simple Google search of FastMail and Falun Gong throws up more than a dozen FastMail email addresses, a point that Jeremy acknowledges with a twinge of pride: After all, he says, it’s a sign they think his service is safe. “It seems we’re now the official provider of the Falun Gong,” he says.

SkypeIn And Miscalls

Just got my first SkypeIn miscall! That was fun. A guy called Christian, calling a guy called Simon, somewhere in the UK, but got my UK SkypeIn number. Simon, he’s only going to be there until five pm.

That was fun! Could I be the first? I feel that the least we should do is to be more polite and helpful on miscalls. Should I call Christian back and tell him he dialled the wrong number? Or should I put his number on my blog so someone else can do it?

Update: Office Update You Should Probably Have

 If you’ve already upgraded to Microsoft Office 2003 (why, exactly?) there’s an update you should download. This update, Microsoft says in its understated way, “fixes a problem that occurs when you try to open or to save a Microsoft Office PowerPoint 2003 file, a Microsoft Office Word 2003 file, or a Microsoft Office Excel 2003 file that includes an OfficeArt shape that was previously modified and saved in an earlier version of Microsoft Office.”
It turns out that if you save one of those files containing an OfficeArt shape (a particularly kind of graphic) in Office 2003, then open it in an earlier version of Office, you may lose the whole thing. Or, in Microsoft-speak, “you may experience the following symptoms:
The document may not open completely.
The document may be corrupted.
The document may open but with missing content.
You might receive an error message.”
You’ve been warned. More details here.