By DEBORAH GAGE
San Francisco Chronicle
April 01, 2008
Security company McAfee Inc. is urging 50 volunteers to spam it up during the month of April in the hope of getting a fresh handle on the ever-growing landscape of malicious software programs circulating on the Internet and attacking people's computers.
The Santa Clara, Calif. company solicited participants through an ad on Craigslist and chose five people from each of the 10 countries in which it does business. The spam-hunters will be given new Dell laptops with minimal anti-virus protection -- which they'll be allowed to keep -- disposable e-mail addresses and, in some cases, small amounts of money so they can buy products offered through spam or respond to various money-making schemes.
In return, they'll be required to blog about their experiences at www.mcafeespamexperiment.com, a Web site that goes live on Tuesday. Those who don't speak English will blog in their own language.
"At the end of 30 days, people will understand why spam is linked to cybercrime," said Dave Marcus, a security researcher for McAfee's Avert Labs, which will be analyzing all the spam and writing a report. "They'll understand why it makes people money."
The contract signed by the participants prohibits the public release of their last names to protect the integrity of the experiment, McAfee said.
One participant is Tracy, a real estate agent and mother of three who works from home in Naperville, Ill. She's excited to be chosen, she said in a phone interview, partly because she lost three weeks' worth of business over the holidays after her computer was knocked out by a computer worm, a self-replicating computer program. She suspects the worm was introduced by her kids, who used the machine to play online games. Repairs cost her $400.
She plans to click on every pop-up ad that comes her way. "I'm very interested in how spam can take over your computer," she said.
Her son Zachary, 17, also is curious about spam, but it's because his generation takes it for granted, he said. His friends at school agree that "nobody actually looks at spam anymore."
Another participant, Bill, a retired accountant in San Francisco, is considering responding to an e-mail he received recently that offered him $300 for "surveying" PayPal and Western Union. He used computers at work for many years but doesn't use them much for entertainment.
"(I'm curious) to see what adventures I get involved in," he said.
Bill has never blogged, but figures it will be no different from writing essays.
Two thousand people responded to the ad on Craigslist, and McAfee chose its group to get a mix of ages, nationalities and computer experience, Marcus said.
One idea McAfee will continue to test is how much spam is localized -- whether people in Germany, for example, get spam aimed at Germans.
But the company also wants to work with "regular Joes and Janes like you and me," Marcus said, and show what happens from a victim's point of view. "At the end of 30 days, we'll open a lot of people's eyes."
Oh, and when the experiment is complete, participants will get disks to clean up their new computers.
Distributed to subscribers for publication by
Scripps Howard News Service, http://www.scrippsnews.com
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