Opinion: It’s Time Social-Media Platforms Took Automated Scams More Seriously

In Information Security ByAngus Batey / 24th July 2014

I wasn’t directly affected by the MH-17 disaster, but it came closer to touching me than most of the rest of the parade of grim headlines and casual atrocities which have made up one of the most depressing news cycles in recent memory. That’s not to suggest that the appalling and never-ending tragedy of Israel and Palestine is of lesser consequence, but rather, in the same way that anyone who’d ever caught a domestic flight in the USA would have been more deeply shaken by the September 11 attacks than someone who hadn’t, sometimes these stories become more real if some of the details fit all too easily into your own catalogue of experiences.

In my case, what’s got me is the juxtaposition of the country where the aircraft came down, and the fact that two of the dead supported the same football team as I do. I don’t go anywhere near as much as I used to, but over the years I’ve done a fair bit of travelling to interesting parts of the world to watch Newcastle United play. I didn’t know either of them to talk to, but I’ll have been in the same place as Liam Sweeney and John Alder on many times over the years. Liam might have been too young, but I bet John was there in Kiev that unforgettable night in October 1997 when we drew 2-2 with Dynamo. It was one of the best, strangest and most indelible experiences I’ve had supporting my team: but now, NUFC and Ukraine will be linked in another and utterly heartbreaking way.

So perhaps I’m a bit more sensitive than I otherwise would be to the news that automated spambots have been using this tragedy to try to make their operators money. According to one BBC report, a Facebook page purporting to honour Liam’s memory was a scam, its clip claiming to show footage of the crash (and you’ve got to wonder why anyone with an ounce of self-respect would want to click on that in the first place) but which actually turned out to be a porn video. Twitter feeds also carried spam messages using the flight code as a hashtag to attract attention and snare the unwary.

Facebook says it can’t automatically tell when someone posts spam or objectionable material on its site. Coming from a company which has announced a major breakthrough in facial-recognition technology, which has conducted research into how to manipulate users’ emotions, and whose platform is designed so that its operators can automatically glean an extensive array of information about its users’ behaviours, interests and attitudes, I find that claim hard to believe. Still, at least the human employees took the page down once human users had manually alerted the company to it.

As past RANT Forum presenter Rik Ferguson pointed out to the BBC, spam and online scams are increasingly automated. The programs that create the bait for the digital hook will be designed to look for high-profile and trending stories. So chances are, this probably wasn’t personal, just business – albeit not the sort of business that anyone would be proud enough of carrying out to want to identify themselves as conducting it.

I don’t really know what the big infosec lesson is we can learn here. There may not even be one. But in weeks like this, where the news is bad enough anyway, the last thing I need is a computer program doing something to sicken me even more. The social-media sites hosting this kind of hurtful, pointless and entirely useless material need to spend more of their considerable resources in designing ways to rip it out at the roots, if not prevent it from being published in the first place. And the people writing the code – if they have even a shred of decency about them – might perhaps spend an hour or two adding in some lines to at least try to minimise the chances that they piggy-back their scams on the needless deaths of innocent people.


* The photo above shows wreaths laid by Newcastle United manager Alan Pardew and captain Fabricio Coloccini on the seats Liam and John would have occupied during the club’s pre-season friendly in Dunedin, New Zealand, on Tuesday. Many thanks to photographer Pete Smith and NUFC.com for permission to republish it here.

A memorial fund has been set up by supporters of Newcastle’s great local rivals, Sunderland, and has easily surpassed its original aim of funding floral tributes to the two men. Additional money raised will be donated to the Sir Bobby Robson Foundation and to the Marie Curie Hospice in Newcastle – charities chosen by Liam’s and John’s families. To donate, click here.