PAPER CUTS: Invasion From Cyberspace

The rhythm of life is periodically punctured by annoyances that range from the petty to the cerebral blood vessel bursting. Voice mail. Call waiting. Public restrooms with unlockable stalls. Auto mechanics who can't seem to diagnose the problem until your car drops dead on the interstate. Doctors who keep you waiting for hours in a paper dress, but can't spare you more than 60 seconds of their valuable time. But all of these pale beside the diabolical intrusiveness of modern communication.I am not, by nature, a curmudgeon. I tend to approach all messages from the outside world with an anticipation more appropriate to Christmas morning. Every ring of the telephone and "You've got Mail" icon is an adventure into the exciting unknown. I even misread those "You May Have Already Won" sweepstakes announcements as if they said "You Are Actually Going To Win" a zillion dollars. But like everyone else with a permanent address, the bulk of what I receive is pre-garbage.Fliers labelled "Occupant", that have no relationship whatsoever to anyone who ever lived here. Brochures from stores at which I have never shopped, nor have any plans to visit in the forseeable future. Simulated checks, cunningly wrought, that turn out to be come-ons for car dealer clearances. Entire forests denuded in the service of mix-and-match polyester outfits no one in their right mind would wear in this lifetime or the next. Pre-approved credit cards with my name ever so slightly misspelled. Items marked "Return To Sender If Undeliverable", that neverthless always seem to find their way to me. No matter how carefully I dispose of these materials, they return, uninvited, back to my mailbox, forcing me to become a conduit in the endless recycling of paper.Even more irritating, a preponderance of the telephone calls I receive seem to be placed totally at random. Ear splitting faxes, at astounding times of the night, which could only be considered reasonable working hours in Ouagadougou. Insurance adjustors just getting around to calling doctors who retired sometime in the past century, pet owners trying to reach the Little Wanderers dog motel, indefatigable salesmen for redi-to-microwave meal plans and vacuum cleaners on the lifelong installment plan, and representatives of various long-distance carriers offering incentives ranging from free minutes on February 29 to pints of Ben and Jerry's Bovinity Divinity. All of whom demand my immediate attention when I am walking the dogs, in the bathtub, or covered with a five-minute mini-facelift masque, and never when I am actually standing next to the phone. None of whom are willing to give me their own home phone numbers, so I can return their calls at an equally inconvenient time.A fair number of these intrusions are deliberate. Many magazines and catalogue companies sell their mailing lists to advertisers, who use them to target prospective customers. I figured this out when I cancelled my subscription to "People Magazine", and started getting "The New York Review of Books". The quality of my garbage improved dramatically. The introductory offers for psychic buddies, fat burning chocolate bars, and buttmasters, were replaced by great deals on Prada knockoffs and pashmina shawls.Over decades of such assaults on my sanity, I have learned to accept this as the price one pays for being accessible. For all I know, the pony express riders distributed ads from snake oil salesmen and used horse dealers. Simply another page in the litany of modern horrors, right up there with the lines at the Motor Vehicle Bureau, customer subsidized nuclear power plants, and fluorochlorocarbonated drinking water.What is more difficult to shrug off is the newest intrusion, the invasion of unwanted e-mail. Spam, and I don't mean the scourge of the schoolroom cafeteria, is the heavy breather of the internet generation. Spam bears as much ressemblance to legitimate correspondence as Tang does to fresh orange juice. What's more, unlike junk that is mailed, you pay the freight through monthly fees for internet service. The cost to the senders is infinitesimal, and you will run out of patience long before they run out of money.Just because you're sitting in your underwear eating Cap'n Crunch while you browse the web, doesn't mean you are assured of privacy. Using the internet can be as revealing as exposing yourself on Main Street at high noon.Be aware that discussion groups, bulletin boards, and chat rooms are also public address books. Whether you post your message on a local internet provider or a major net service, your attached e-mail address can be disseminated worldwide, and be available to anyone anywhere. You may become a link in an endless global chain of enticements for cheesy collectibles from the Franklin Mint, "How to Earn Big $$$" without leaving the Laz-Y-Boy, and requests for handouts by everyone from Sally Struthers to the Reverend Al Sharpton.And keep in mind that offers that seem too good to be true generally aren't. Free trips to Disneyland, or handouts straight from Bill Gates' wallet, are not legitimate mailings, but probes from spammers, trolling to confirm the e-mail addresses of the incredibly gullible. Watch out for web pages that say "Put your address here if you want to be on a 'Do Not Mail' list". These lists are often sold to the very advertisers you want to avoid.Private messages which end up being forwarded to large groups, are potential sources of Spam. Do yourself and your friends a favor, and surpress your recipient list before mailing. Simply click on Bcc (Blind Carbon Copy) under View in your browser, to hide your address book before sending out messages.The most-common way of making yourself accessible to Spam is through web pages. Just like O.J.Simpson, we leave our footprints almost everywhere we go. Sign onto any webpage, especially a page that is listed in a search engine or directory, and you are offering yourself to advertisers. Scanning software utilized by spammers can query a search engine for any page on the net that has, for example, the word "dogfood" on it. Within minutes, they have collected the addresses of a gigantic target population of dog owners. Or people who eat dogfood.On many web sites, you don't even need to identify yourself to be victimized. Just logging on is enough to trigger an automatic profiler that charts your preferences and subjects you to an unstoppable barrage of e-mail messages. Remember those sci-fi movies from the 50's, in which aliens were probing humans for information? Now it's being done for real, and the probes are called "Cookies".Cookies are small files, no more than 255 characters, that web servers can create on a user's computer, to save information between visits. Here's how they work: A script in the HTML file tells the browser to create a cookie with certain parameters.The browser writes the file to the hard drive. When the user visits the same site, another script can ask the browser to check for a specific cookie, and read the parameters associated with it. Any webpage can save or read a cookie on the user's computer. Cookies can contain any type of information, such as passwords, user names, and website visit information.The first rule of protection is just what your Mother always told you. Do not accept Cookies from strangers. To protect yourself, take a trip into the inner recesses of your browser. In the Preferences section of both Internet Explorer and Netscape, under Security Preferences, you will be able to disable cookies, or to request a prompt each time a cookie is offered. Most browsers also allow you to view, within the Directory files, cookies you may have eaten unintentionally. Spit them back out.Never respond to unwanted messages. You are simply confirming your address to the sender. Instead, the next time you get an offer for XXX rated videos, go into the Options section of your mail program, and ask for All or Expanded Headers. This will allow you to trace the route of the mail backwards, from your Internet Service Provider, through their gateway, back to the sender's server.Spam is as much of a problem for Internet Service Providers as it is for customers. Notify the abuse department of the server from which the junkmail was sent. Most servers have policies restricting the mailing of bulk e-mail, and many have filters in place to prevent the relay of third party e-mail, mail which neither originates from nor is received by their accounts. Abuse @originating domain can stop Spam dead in its tracks.E-mail your complaints about unwanted mail to abuse@ your own internet service provider, or speak directly to the abuse department and find out what filters they have in place to screen out Spam. Filters can be customized to screen for bulk mailings, bogus or forged sources, and known blacklisted spammers, without invading the content of your messages.With the hours you save each day, by eliminating the downloading and deleting of garbage, you'll have time to take up a hobby. I'm learning to polka and play the accordion.

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