Lycos Europe is distributing a screen saver that launches denial of service attacks on the websites of suspected spammers, according to a Craig Morris story at Heise Online. The screen saver sends dummy requests to the servers in order to slow them down. It even displays information to the user about the current attack target.
This is a serious lapse of judgment by Lycos. For one thing, this kind of vigilante attack erodes the line between the good guys and the bad guys. Spammers are bad because they use resources and keep people from getting to the messages they want to read. If you respond by wasting resources and keeping people from getting to the websites they want to read, it’s hard to see what separates you from the spammers.
This kind of attack can be misdirected at innocent parties. The article says that Lycos is attacking sites on the SpamCop blocklist. That doesn’t fill me with confidence – this site has been on the SpamCop blocklist at least once, despite having nothing at all to do with spam. (The cause was an erroneous complaint, coupled with a hair-trigger policy by SpamCop.)
We also know that spammers have a history of trying to frame innocent people as being sources of spam. A basic method for doing this is common enough to have a name: “Joe job”. Attacking the apparent sources of spam just makes such misdirection more effective.
And finally, there’s the question of whether this is legal. The Heise Online article reaches no conclusion about its legality in Germany, and I don’t know enough to say whether it’s legal in the U.S. Lycos argues that it’s not really a denial of service attack because they’re careful not to block access to the sites completely. But they do brag about raising the sites’ costs and degrading the experience of the sites’ users. That’s enough to make it a denial of service attack in my book.
This idea – attacking spammer sites – is one that surfaces occasionally, but usually cooler heads prevail. It’s a real surprise to see a prominent company putting it into action.
[Link via TechDirt. And did I mention that TechDirt is a great source of interesting technology news?]
UPDATE (Dec. 6): Lycos has now withdrawn this program, declaring implausibly that it has succeeded and so is no longer needed.