Spam Reporting Centre

The Canadian government has decided to create a spam reporting centre (aka ‘The Freezer’) to address issues arising from cybercrime and communications fraud and annoyances of various kinds.

The idea cannot possibly work on technical grounds. More worryingly, it displays a lack of awareness of the realities of cybersecurity that is astounding.

The first peculiarity is that the Centre is supposed to address four problems: email spam, unsolicited phone calls, fake communications a la Facebook, and malware. Although these have a certain superficial similarity — they all annoy individuals — they do not raise the same kinds of technical issues underneath, and no one person could be an expert in detecting, let along prosecuting all of them. It’s a bit like trying to amalgamate the Salvation Army and the police force because they both wear uniforms and help people!

The Centre will rely on reports from individuals: get a spam email and forward it to the Centre, for example. One of the troubles with this idea is that individuals don’t usually have enough information to report such things in a useful way, and they don’t make good starting points for an eventual prosecution. Canada already has a way to report unsolicited phone calls but it only works for people who almost keep the law by announcing who they are at the beginning. The annoying (and illegal) robocalls can’t be reported because the person who gets them doesn’t know where they are coming from and who’s making them. And where there are prosecutions, each person who reports such a call has to sign an affidavit that the purported call did actually happen to provide the legal basis for the incident.

The second, huge, problem with this idea is that, if individuals can report bad incidents, then spammers can also report fake bad incidents! And they can do it in such volume that investigators will have no way to distinguish the real from the fake. Creating fake spam emails and evading mechanisms such as captchas to prevent wholesale reportingĀ  is very easy.

There is also the deeper problem that besets all cybersecurity — attribution. It is always hard to trace cyberexploits back to their origins, and these origins are overwhelmingly likely to be computers taken over by botnets anyway. Working back along such chains to find someone to prosecute is tedious and expert work that depends on starting from as much information as possible.

The right way to address this problem is to set up honeytraps — machines and phones that seem to be ordinary but are instrumented so that, when an exploit happens, as much information as possible is collected at the time. Now there is a foundation for deciding which incidents are worth pursuing and starting out in pursuit with the best possible information. And, who knows, the knowledge that such systems are out there might dampen some of the enthusiasm on the part of the bad guys.

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