Automated Denial-of-Service Attack

Using the U.S. Post Office


This is an article about blurring the lines between the physical realms and the virtual realms. An interesting article about revenge on a 'spammer', and how 'virtual life' can cross over into 'real life'.

The Article

In December 2002, the notorious "spam king" Alan Ralsky gave an interview. Aside from his usual comments that antagonized spam-hating e-mail users, he mentioned his new home in West Bloomfield, Michigan. The interview was posted on Slashdot, and some enterprising reader found his address in some database. Egging each other on, the Slashdot readership subscribed him to thousands of catalogs, mailing lists, information requests, etc. The results were devastating: within weeks he was getting hundreds of pounds of junk mail per day and was unable to find his real mail amongst the deluge.

Ironic, definitely. But more interesting is the related paper by security researchers Simon Byers, Avi Rubin and Dave Kormann, who have demonstrated how to automate this attack.

If you type the following search string into Google -- "request catalog name address city state zip" -- you'll get links to over 250,000 (the exact number varies) Web forms where you can type in your information and receive a catalog in the mail. Or, if you follow where this is going, you can type in the information of anyone you want. If you're a little bit clever with Perl (or any other scripting language), you can write a script that will automatically harvest the pages and fill in someone's information on all 250,000 forms. You'll have to do some parsing of the forms, but it's not too difficult. (There are actually a few more problems to solve. For example, the search engines normally don't return more than 1,000 actual hits per query.) When you're done, voila! It's Slashdot's attack, fully automated and dutifully executed by the U.S. Postal Service.

If this were just a nasty way to harass people you don't like, it wouldn't be worth writing about. What's interesting about this attack is that it exploits the boundary between cyberspace and the real world. The reason spamming normally doesn't work with physical mail is that sending a piece of mail costs money, and it's just too expensive to bury someone's house in mail. Subscribing someone to magazines and signing them up for embarrassing catalogs is an old trick, but it has limitations because it's physically difficult to do it on a large scale. But this attack exploits the automation properties of the Internet, the Web availability of catalog request forms, and the paper world of the Post Office and catalog mailings. All the pieces are required for the attack to work.

And there's no easy defense. Companies want to make it easy for someone to request a catalog. If the attacker used an anonymous connection to launch his attack -- one of the zillions of open wireless networks would be a good choice -- I don't see how he would ever get caught. Even worse, it could take years for the victim to get his name off all of the mailing lists -- if he ever could.

Individual catalog companies can protect themselves by adding a human test to their sign-up form. The idea is to add a step that a person can easily do, but a machine can't. The most common technique is to produce a text image that OCR technology can't understand but the human eye can, and to require that the text be typed into the form. These have been popping up on Web sites to prevent automatic registration; I've seen them on Yahoo and PayPal, for example.

If everyone used this sort of thing, the attack wouldn't work. But the economics of the situation means that this won't happen. The attack works in aggregate; each individual catalog mailer only participates to a small degree. There would have to be a lot of fraud for it to be worth the money for a single catalog mailer to install the countermeasure. (Making it illegal to send a catalog to someone who didn't request it could change the economics.)

Attacks like this abound. They arise when an old physical process is moved onto the Internet, and is then automated in some unanticipated way. They're emergent properties of the systems. And they're going to become more prevalent in the years ahead.

The paper:

The Ralsky story:

Article originally published at :

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Last edited Sun Oct 01 20:11:02 2006.