Blue Whale Challenge

Blue Whale at the Marine Life Hall, American Museum of Natural History
This is a blue whale. Nothing to do with the latest chain letter hoax.
People seem to be getting really worked up about a so-called “Blue Whale Challenge” social media game. And understandably so – it’s a game where vulnerable children are targeted and given progressive challenge, culminating in something that will kill them.

I saw this first a couple of months ago, and each time it turns up the lurid details have been embellished further. It sounds too macabre to be true. And it’s not.

About a year ago someone in Russia published an on-line article hoping to explain the high number of teenage suicides in the country, and blaming it on the Internet. Apparently a statistically significant number of teenagers belonging to one particular on-line group had died; the on-line group must therefore be to blame.

Wrong! If you have an on-line group of depressed teenagers then you are going to have a higher proportion of suicides amongst them. The writers have confused cause and effect.

However, facts never got in the way of a good lurid story and this one seems to have bounced around Russia for most of 2016, where it morphed into an evil on-line challenge game. It then jumped the language gap to English in winter 2017.

The story spreads as a cautionary tale, with the suggestion that you should pass it on to everyone you know so they can check their kids for early signs they are being targeted (specifically, cutting a picture of a whale in to their arm). In other words, a classic email urban legend. It’s only a matter of time before the neighbourhood watch people add it to their newsletters.

Update:

The Daily Mail has reported this as fact, so I must be wrong and it must be true. Or perhaps I’m right and they have nothing to back their carefully worded account. Wouldn’t be the first time…

 

 

BT Internet Mail Fail (again)

BT Internet’s email system is broken AGAIN. It rejects everything it gets as “spam” (554 Message rejected, policy (3.2.1.1) – Your message looks like SPAM or has been reported as SPAM please read…)

Having checked against blacklists, and sent perfectly innocuous test text messages to friends account, it’s definitely busted.

My advice to anyone using BT Internet for important email is to get a proper account with a proper provider (or handle your email in-house if your name is not Fred and you don’t work from a shed).

BT Internet mail is broken – Deferred: 421 Too many messages (1.5.6.1) from xxx.xxx.xxx.xxx

When Yahoo ran BT Internet’s customer email for them, it wasn’t great. We all know they had problems coping with spammers hammering away trying to deliver scams and marketing messages to BT’s punters, putting the whole system in to paranoid anti-spam mode on occasions. But it could have been worse, and now it is.

Since Critical Path (now owned by Openwave Messaging) took over running the shambles in May 2013, they appear to have hit on the bright idea of not accepting more than 49 emails a day from any one server. What? Yes, you read that correctly. If the server tries to send message fifty it gets a delayed email response:

Deferred: 421 Too many messages (1.5.6.1) from xxx.xxx.xxx.xxx

Sendmail (or other normal MTA) will simply continue trying to send it for a week, but if you have more than fifty messages a day on average to BT punters the queue is never going to empty. And fifty messages isn’t a lot. Suppose you’re a company and someone wants their work emailed forward to BT Internet? That could easily be fifty for one luser. And if you’re an web host, one of your customers is probably going to want all the email for a domain to go to a @btinternet.com address, and they’ll likely set it up without you even knowing about it.

This has being going on for over a year now, with a possible reduction in the limit last autumn. There was a theory going around that it would reject domains if the SPF record was inconclusive. Although SPF sounded like a good idea for the first five minutes, it’s rubbish when used as a naive check on mail that’s been forwarded.

I’ve been able to get some unsatisfactory information out of BT on this issue. Basically their policy is to “throttle” mail from an IP address if they think more than a certain proportion of it is spam, based on SPF records and suchlike. In the case of a user having all their mail forwarded to a BT Internet box, a high proportion of it is going to be spam; it’s inevitable. And a check of the SPF record is obviously going to fail (doah!)

BT luser forums are full of complaints about this, although the cause is misunderstood. Users get bounce messages, but it’s the server log that tells the whole picture, and as it’s often delayed they believe that a hokey “fix” has actually worked and others follow.

So what can be done about it? The obvious answer is to stop using BT Internet mail. They’ve shown a complete unwillingness to address this issue, and will doubtless make some excuse that most users are unaffected – that’s to say the other large ISPs and freemail services; direct business-to-BT Internet Luser is a small fraction. If that doesn’t work for you, the minimum you should do is ban anyone forwarding mail to @btinternet.com through your servers. Then make sure that domains you host have the correct SPF records. If you don’t, and one exceeds the limit, the IP address will be blocked and prevent your other customers from using it too.

No one who knows anything about spam control will rely on SPF, of course. But if there is someone who knows what they’re doing at Openwave, their voices are clearly being ignored.

If you’re a BT customer and you use email, based on the fact this problem has gone unresolved for a year now, the only advice I can give is to move away. Which is inrtersting, because this April BT announced plans to charge their ex-punters 60 to keep their (broken) @btinternet.com domain names – the same price as BT Internet’s broadband offering anyway. Done, you will be.

 

Am I being phished?

Today I received an intriguing email with a Microsoft Word attachment implying I had money coming to me if I filled in a form. Yeah, right. I was just about to hit delete but I was a bit surprised the sender was addressing me as Prof. Leonhardt. It’s hardly the first time someone’s got this wrong – and to be on the safe side I can see why people might start high and work backwards through Dr. and so on, as people who are about such matters are only offended if you start too low.

But why would a botnet add the title?

On closer inspection I recognised it was a royalty payment enquiry from a publishing company that had actually done a book for about five years ago. I didn’t expect it to sell (it wasn’t that kind of book), so hadn’t thought much about out.

But I still haven’t opened the attachment. The email headers suggest it came from the publisher, but they can be forged. And this could be a clever spear-phishing attempt – after all, if you bought the book, which was largely about email security, you’d have the name of the publisher and my name – and the email address used can be found using Google.

I don’t believe I have ever been spear-phished before, so I’m feeling a bit more important than I did yesterday.

Time to fire up the sandbox!

Fake Received: used by spammers – new tactic

Actually, this isn’t a new tactic at all. There was a lot of this going on in the 1990s and early 2000s, but I haven’t seen such widespread use of fake Received headers for a while now. As mail is no longer relayed, what’s the point? And yet, it’s coming again. Take this recent example:

Received: from host101-187-static.229-95-b.business.telecomitalia.it (host101-187-static.229-95-b.business.telecomitalia.it [95.229.187.101])
by real-mail-server.example.com (8.14.4/8.14.4) with ESMTP id t8NAOpJS007947;
Wed, 23 Sep 2015 11:24:57 +0100 (BST)
(envelope-from name-up-name@a-genuine-domain.com)
Received: from remacdmzma03.rbs.com (mail09.rbs.com [155.136.80.33]) by mail.example.com (Postfix) with ESMTP id B849451943 for made-up-name@example.com; Wed, 23 Sep 2015 11:22:43 GMT)
Message-ID: <XZ95O517.6281609@rbs.co.uk>
Date: Wed, 23 Sep 2015 11:22:43 GMT
Thread-Topic: Emailing: bankfl.emt
Thread-Index: made-up-name@example.com
From: "RBS" <secure.message@rbs.co.uk>
To: made-up-name@example.com
MIME-Version: 1.0
To: made-up-name@example.com
Subject: Bankline ROI - Password Re-activation Form
Content-Type: multipart/mixed;
boundary="----------------_=_NextPart_001_01CF5EDB.A2094B20"
This is a multi-part message in MIME format.
------------------_=_NextPart_001_01CF5EDB.A2094B20
Content-Type: text/plain; charset=ISO-8859-1; format=flowed
Content-Transfer-Encoding: 7bit


Please find the Re-activation form attached, send one per user ensuring only one box is selected in section 3. A signatory on the bank mandate must sign the form.

… etc …

Obviously the above has been re-written to use example.com, and the made-up-name was something random. The rest of the header is as it was. They’re obviously trying to convince you that your mail servers have already seen this  this message, so it must be okay. This is such a dumb trick – does any spam filter bother to even look at earlier headers? Are they hoping that Bayesian analysis will score the incorrectly guessed mail server as particularly hammy?

But what’s doing this, and why? Is there a new spambot in town, or is there a new spam filter that’s susceptible to such a dumb trick?

As it stands, this was sent from a blacklisted IP address and the SPF fails for RBS anyway, and the English it was written by a virtual English illiterate. For what it’s worth, the payload was malware in a ZIP.

 

GMail can’t send to sendmail

Gmail Fail

What’s happening with Google? Their Internet engineering used to be spot on. They’re generally a bunch of clever guys, and they follow standards and their stuff just works. Or did. Lately their halo has been getting a bit tarnished, and problems with GMail are a good case in point.

It all started quietly around a month ago on the 6th August. About a week later, people started complaining that users sending mail to them from GMail were getting bounce messages. It looks like Google had rolled out a broken software update, but they’re keeping a low profile on the subject.

After a great deal of investigation it appeared that their new MTA was attempting to make a STARTTLS connection when delivering mail on port 25. STARTTLS is a mechanism that allows encryption on a standard unencrypted channel. Basically, the sender tries a STARTTLS command and if the receiver supports it, returns a reply of “okay” and the remainder of the connection is encrypted using TLS. unfortunately Google’s implementation, which had been working for years, is now broken. The GMail lusers got a bounce back a week later that said it couldn’t negotiate a STARTTLS connection. No further explanation has been forthcoming. STARTTLS should work, and if it doesn’t GMail should try again without using it, but doesn’t.

On the servers I’ve examined there is no problem with STARTTLS. Other MTAs are continuing to use it. All certificate diagnostics pass. Presumably Google has changed the specification as to what kind of TLS/SSL its going to work with, as, presumably, it’s not happy working with all types. Not all servers have this problem. But Google isn’t telling anyone what they’ve done, at least not so far. Working out what’s wrong with their new specification using trial and error takes a while, and I have yet to find a combination that works. And besides, it’s not Google’s place to tell recipients what kind of encryption they should be using, especially when the default state is unencrypted.

Google does offer a troubleshooter but it doesn’t cover this eventuality. There is an option to report other problems, but to date I’ve had no response.

So what’s the solution? The only method I’ve found that works is to disable STARTTLS on Port 25. This means that Google can’t try and fail, and go in to sulk mode. And here’s the bit you’ve probably been waiting for: how to do it.

Assuming you have an access DB configured for sendmail, (the norm) you need to add an extra line somewhere and makemap it:


srv_features: S

On FreeBSD this file is /etc/mail/access and you can make it active using make run from the /etc/mail directory. But you probably knew that.

The srv_features stuff basically tells sendmail which services to advertise as being available. STARTTLS is option ‘S’, with a lower-case letter meaning “advertise it”, and an upper-case meaning “don’t advertise it”. This over-rides defaults, and all we want to do here is stop advertising STARTTLS. If it’s not advertised, Google doesn’t try using it (at least for now).

You might want to read this sendmail documentation for more information in the normal Sendmail easy-to-understand(!) format. If that doesn’t do it for you, look at section 5.1.4.15 of the manual, available in PDF here.

Now Google may defend this state of affairs by saying that they’re implementing something odd with STARTTLS for “security reasons”. There may even be some justification in this. If I knew what they’d changed I might be able to comment on that, but I can’t. However, even if this was the case, they’d be wrong in principle. Since the dawn of Internet email we’ve had RFCs telling us how things should work. You can’t just change the way you do things and expect everyone else to change to suit you, however large you are. And it’s possible that what Google has done is RFC compliant, even if it is bonkers. There are unspecified aspects in RFCs, and some grey areas. However, anyone who’s been around for long enough will know that Sendmail is the de-facto MTA. If you have an argument about the interpretation of an RFC, you can settle it by asking the question “Does it work with sendmail?” If it doesn’t, it’s your problem.

And while we’re at it, it’s really good of Google to stop anyone reading your email while it’s in transit (could they be thinking of the NSA here?) After all, you don’t want email sent through GMail to be readable by anyone until they’re delivered, do you? The only snag is that they are still being read and analysed, by Google. Of course. Email is never secure unless you have end-to-end encryption, and by definition, you can’t get this with a webmail service.

Problems receiving mail from GMail – STARTTLS is a bad idea

Gmail Fail

Note: You may wish to read this follow-up article, which contains a solution.

A couple of weeks ago, users started complaining that people using GMAIL (and possibly iCloud) were having their emails bounced back to them from my servers. This is odd – most complaints on the Internet are from users of dodgy hosting companies having their mail rejected by GMail as likely spam. But I haven’t blacklisted Google, and all other mail is working, so they must have been mistaken.

But as soon as I could, I tried it for myself. And sure enough, a bounce came back. The relevent bit is:

Technical details of temporary failure:
TLS Negotiation failed: generic::failed_precondition:
               starttls error (0): protocol error

On fishing around in Sendmail logs, I found evidence that this has been going on all over the place:

sm-mta[84848]: STARTTLS=server, error: accept failed=-1, SSL_error=1, 
               errno=0, retry=-1, relay=mail-qg0-f50.google.com [209.85.192.50]
sm-mta[84848]: STARTTLS=server: 84848:error:1408A0C1:SSL
               routines:SSL3_GET_CLIENT_HELLO:no shared cipher:/usr/src/secure
               /lib/libssl/../../../crypto/openssl/ssl/s3_srvr.c:1073:
sm-mta[84848]: t7QJXCPI084848: mail-qg0-f50.google.com [209.85.192.50] did
               not issue MAIL/EXPN/VRFY/ETRN during connection to MTA

Oh my! The STARTTLS stuff isn’t working because there’s no shared cypher! Hang on a minute, there isn’t supposed to be. Who told Google they could use STARTTLS on port 25. It’d be neat if it worked, but it’s not configured – at least not with a certificate from a public CA. It actually works just fine if you are cool with self-signed (private) certificates. So what is Google playing at?

In the wake of Edward Snowden, people have started worrying about this kind of thing, so companies like Google are trying to be seen doing something about it, and encrypting mail might seem like a good idea. Unfortunately STARTTLS is a bad idea. The rationale behind STARTTLS was to add encryption to a previously unencrypted port’s traffic. If the sender issued a STARTTLS as part of the protocol it could switch in to TLS mode if it knew how; otherwise it would just work as normal. The IETF was very keen on this in the late 1990’s as an easy fix, citing all sorts of iffy reasons, generally to do with having two ports; one standard and one encrypted. They thought it would be confusing, requiring different URLs and not allow for opportunistic automatic encryption of the kind Google seems to be attempting.

As far as I’m concerned, this is rubbish. Having clearly defined encrypted and unencrypted ports means you know where you are. It either is or it isn’t. If you say something must be encrypted, turn off the unencrypted port. STARTTLS allows a fall-back to plain text if you specify the clear text port; and if you have a man-in-the-middle you’ll never know that the STARTTLS was stripped from the negotiations. It opens up a vulnerability that need not be there, all for the sake of saving a port. And time is on my side in this argument. Since 1999 the implementation of encrypted ports has really taken off, with https, smtps (in spite of 465 being rescinded), imaps – you name it – all servers and clients support it and you know where you are.

So what’s this sudden clamouring for the insecure STARTTLS? Naivety on the part of the large internet companies, or a plot to make people think their email traffic is now safe from snoopers when its not?

I’ve reported this problem and I await an answer from Google, but my best guess is that they’re speculatively using STARTTLS, and then barfing and throwing their toys from the pram when it doesn’t work because the verify can’t be done. Having thought about it, I’m okay with the idea of trying STARTTLS as long as you don’t mind about the CA used for the certificate; and if you can’t negotiate a TLS link, go back to plain text. In many ways it’d be better to use the well known port 465 for TLS, and if it can’t be opened, go to plain text on 25. Except there’s no guarantee that port 465 is on the same server as port 25, and it’s normally configured to require SASL authentication. As everyone knows, apart from Google it seems, assumption is the mother of all foul-ups.

Encryption is a good idea, but making assumptions about Port 25 being anything other that straight SMTP is asking for trouble.

 

Using MX records to create backup mail server

There’s a widely held misunderstanding about “main” and “backup” MX records in the web developer world. The fact is that there not such thing! Anyone who tells you different is plain wrong, but there are a lot of web developers who believe there is the case, and some ISPs give in and provide them as it’s simpler than arguing. It’s possible to use two in some crazy scheme that looks like a backup server, in practice it does very little to help and quite possibly rather a lot to hinder. It won’t make your email more robust in practical terms.

If you are using an email server at a data centre, with reasonable expectation of an always-on connection, you need a single MX record. If your processing requirements are great you can have multiple records at the same level to spread the load between peered servers but none would be a backup any more than any other. Senders simply get one server at random. I have a single MX record.

“But you must have a backup!”, is the usual response. I do, of course, but it has nothing to do with having multiple MX records. Let me explain:

A domain’s MX record gives the address of the server to which its email should be sent. In practice, this means the company’s mail sever; or if they have multiple servers, the incoming one. Most companies have one mail server address, and this is fine. If that mail server dies it needs to be repaired or replaced, and the replacement gets the same address.

But what of having a second MX record with an alternative, lower-priority server? It may sound good, but it’s nuts. Think about it – the company’s mail server is where the mail ends up. It’s where the users expect to log in and read it. If you have an alternative server, the mail will go there instead, but the user’s won’t be able to read it. This assumes that the backup is on a different site, available if the first site goes down. If it’s on the same site it’s even more pointless, as it will be affected by the same connectivity issues that took the first one offline. Users will have their existing mail on the broken server, new mail will be on a different server, and you’ll be in a real bugger’s muddle trying to reconcile the two later. It makes much more sense to just fix the broken one, or switch in a backup at the same location and on the existing IP address. In extremis, you can change the MX record to point to a replacement server elsewhere.

There’s a vague idea that if you don’t have a second MX, mail will be lost. Nothing can be further from the truth. If your one and only mail server is off-line, the sender’s server will queue up the message and keep trying until it comes back – it will normally do this for a week. It won’t lose it. Most mail servers will report back to the sender if it hasn’t been able to get through for four hours, so they’ll know there’s a problem and won’t worry that you haven’t replied.

If you have two mail servers, one on a different site, the secondary server will start receiving emails when the first one goes off-line. It’ll just queue them up, waiting to forward them to the primary one, but in this case the sender won’t get notification of the delay. Okay, if the primary server is off-line for more than a week it will prevent mail loss – but why would the primary server possibly be off-line for a week – the company won’t function unless it’s repaired quickly.

In the old days of dial-up, before POP3 came in to being, some people did use SMTP in a way where a server in a data centre forwarding to the remote site when it connected. I remember Cliff Stanford had a PC mail client called Turnpike that did just this in the early days of Demon. But SMTP was designed for always-on connections and POP3 was designed for dial-up, so POP3 won out.

Let’s get real: There are two likely scenarios for having a mail server off-line. Firstly, the hardware could be dead. If so, get it repaired, and in less than a week. Secondly, the line to the server could be down, and this could be medium-term if someone with a JCB has done a particularly “good job” on it. This gives you a week to make alternative arrangements and direct the mail down another line, which is plenty of time.

So, the idea of having a “backup” MX is pointless. It can only send mail to an off-site server; it doesn’t prevent any realistic mail loss and your email ends up where your users can’t get it until the primary server is repaired. But is there any harm in having one if it makes you feel better? Actually, in practice, yes. In theory mail will just pile up on a spare server and get forwarded later. However, this spare server probably isn’t going to be up to the same specification as the primary one. They never are – they sit there idling, with nothing to do nearly all the time. They won’t necessary have the fastest line; their spam and virus filtering will be out-of-date or non-existent and they have a finite amount of disk space to absorb mail. This can really matter if you end up storing and forwarding a large amount of spam, as is they way these days. The primary server can be configured to discard it quickly, but this isn’t a job appropriate for the secondary one. So it builds up until it’s ancient and meagre disk space is exhausted, and then it tells the sender to give up trying due to a “disk full” error – and the email is bounced off in to the ether. It’d have been much better to leave it on the sender’s server is the first place.

There are other security issues to having a secondary server. One problem comes with spam filtering. This is best done at the end of the line; it’s not the place of a secondary server to determine what gets delivered and what doesn’t. For starters, it doesn’t see the corpus of legitimate emails, so won’t be so adept at comparing and sorting. It’s probably going to be some old spare kit that’s underpowered for modern spam processing anyway. However, when it stores and forwards it, the primary server will see it comes from a “friend” rather than a dubious source in a lawless part Internet. Spammers do use secondary MX records as a back door to get around virus and spam filters for this very reason.

You could, of course, specify and configure a secondary mail server to be up to the job, with loads of disk space to prevent a DoS attack and fully functional spam filters, regularly maintained and sharing Bayesian analysis data and local rules with the actual server. And then have this expensive resource sitting there doing nothing all day but converting electricity in to heat. Realistically, it’s not going to happen.

By now you may be wondering, if multiple MX records are so pointless, why they exist? It’s one of these Internet myths; a paradigm that users feel comfortable with, without questioning the technology behind it. There is a purpose, but it’s not for “backup”.

When universal Internet email was new, messages would be sent to a user “@” computer, and computers were normally shared, so each would have multiple possible users. The computer would receive the email and put it in the mailbox corresponding to the user part of the address.

When the idea of sending email to a domain rather than a specific server came in to being, MD and MF records also came in to being. A MD record gave the IP address of the server where mail should end up (the Mail Destination). An MF record, if it existed, allowed the mail to be forwarded through another machine first (Mail Forward). This was sometimes necessary, for example if the MD was on a dial-up connection or behind a firewall and unable to accept direct connections over the Internet. The mail would go to the MF instead, and the MF would send it to the MD – presumably it had a back door to get to it.

In the mid 1980’s it was felt that having both MD and MF records placed double the load on DNS servers, so unified MX records, which could be read with a single lookup, were born. To allow for multiple levels of mail forwarding through firewalls, they were prioritised to 99 levels, although if you need more than three for any scheme you’re just being silly.

Unfortunately, the operation of MX records rather than the explicitly named MF and MD, is a bit subtle. So subtle it’s often very misunderstood.

The first thing you need to understand is that email delivery should be controlled from the DNS for the domain, NOT from the individual mail servers that exist on that domain. This may not be obvious, but this is how it’s designed to work, and when you think of it, a central point of control is a good thing.

Secondly, DNS records should be universal. Every computer on the Internet, making the same DNS query, should get the same result. With he later addition of NAT, there is now an excuse for varying this, but you can come unstuck if you get it wrong and that’s not what it was designed for.

If you want to reconfigure the route that mail takes to a domain, you do it by editing the single master DNS record (zone file) for that domain – you leave the multiple mail servers alone,

Now consider this problem: an organisation (called “theorganisation”) has a mail server called A. It’s inside the theorganisation’s firewall, for its own protection. Servers on the Internet can’t talk to A directly, because the firewall won’t let them through, but local users send and receive mail through it all day long. To receive external mail there’s another server called B, this time outside the firewall. A rule on the firewall allows specific traffic from B to get to A. The relevant part of the zone file may look something like this, except IP addresses should be used instead of symbolic names:

MX 1 A.theorganisation
MX 2 B.theorganisation

So how do these simple lines tell the world, and servers A and B, how to operate? You need to understand the rules…

When another server, which I shall call C, sends a message to alice@theorganisation it will look up the MX records for theorganisation, and see the above. C will then attempt to contact alice at the lowest numbered MX it finds, which points to server A. If C is located within the same department, it will be within the firewall and mail can be delivered directly; otherwise the firewall will block it. If C can’t contact A because of the firewall it will try the next highest on the list, in this case B. B is on the Internet, and will accept connections from C (and anyone else). The message arrives at B for Alice, but alice is not a user of B. However, B knows that it’s not the final destination for mail to theorganisation because the MX record says there’s a lower numbered server called A, so it attempts to forward it there. As B is allowed through the firewall, it can deliver the message to A, where it’s finally put in alice’s mailbox.

This may sound a bit complicated, but the rules for MX records can be made to route mail through complex paths simply by editing the DNS zone file, and this is how it’s supposed to work. The DNS zone file controls the path the mail will take. If you try to use the system for some contrary purpose (like a poor-man’s backup), you’re going to come unstuck.

There is another situation where you might want multiple MX records: If your mail server has multiple network interfaces on different (redundant) lines. If the MX priority value is the same for both, each IP address will (or should) be used at random, but if you have high-cost and low-cost lines you can change the priority to favour one route over another. With modern routing this artifice may not be necessary – let the router choose the line and mangle the IP addresses in to one for you. But sometimes a simple solution works just as well.

In summary, MX record forwarding is not deigned for implementing backup mail servers and any attempt to use them for the purpose is going to do more harm than good. The ideas that this is what they’re all about is a myth.

 

Cybercriminals: Microsoft’s X-EIP is your friend.

Since January 2013, and without any fanfare, Microsoft has stopped including the originating IP address of Hotmail emails in the headers. Instead, an ominously named X-EIP has appeared in its place, consisting of random characters.

Originating IP addresses are the only means to verifying the source of an email. This is important to prevent fraud, detect crime and block spam. It can’t be used by a recipient to positively identify a sender, but by contacting the relevant ISP about it, the location can be pinpointed relatively quickly and the ISP can take action against a customer based on a complaint. Even home users can check that the IP address their friend’s email came from is in the right country, rather than a cyber-café in some remote and lawless part of the world.

So why has Microsoft done this? After much waiting for a reply, this is the best I have got:

My name is **** and I am a Senior Support Analyst for Microsoft. I am part of the Hotmail Escalations Team handling this issue.

In the pursuit of protecting the privacy of our users, Microsoft has opted to mask the X-Originating IP address. This is a planned change on the part of Microsoft in order to secure the well-being and safety of our customers.

Microsoft is in the path of continuously improving the online safety and security of its users. Any feedback regarding this concern would be treated with utmost attention.

We appreciate your patience and understanding regarding this matter.

Thank you.
Best Regards, etc.

Note the “wellbeing and safety of [their] customers” in the above. Which of their customers need this protection? Well paedophiles wishing transfer material with their mates anonymously will love it. As will fraudsters, cyber-bullies and anyone else wishing to send untraceable emails.

Having analysed the new encrypted codes, they’re not a one-to-one encryption of an IP address. Two emails from the same address will have different codes, so decoding them won’t be easy at all. It’s likely that it’s a one-way hash, meaning Microsoft will need to go back through its records to find out where an email came from, and they’re only going to do that with a court order, I suspect.

And that’s not good enough – tracking cybercrime is an immediate activity, so such things can be shut down quickly. The Internet is self-policing; there’s no time for court orders, and no point if you’re crossing international boundaries. If you know the IP address some malware came from, it’s possible to get hold of the sender’s ISP and have the feed quenched within minutes, or if coming from a commercial or academic institution, the network administrators could be around to catch them in the act. Microsoft has extended this process from minutes to weeks, losing any reputation for responsibility it had with Hotmail (not much I’ll grant you) and promoting its service to the cyber criminal.

However, Microsoft is not alone. Google has been doing this for years with Gmail. Is this a cynical attempt by Microsoft to follow Google’s shameful lead?

There are some cases where anonymous email is a good idea, such as when sending emails from a country where free speech is aggressively discouraged. There is no need for this with a mainstream email service; it’s just a feature provided to encourage new users with something to hide.

 

Dodgy “bulk email” operators

I’m forever receiving emails from “bulk email” companies that claim to be “opt-in” but are using addresses that are culled from elsewhere. The elsewhere basically means they’re not real email addresses and could not possibly have been the subject of an opt-in.

After replying to these with an unsubscribe request (on the assumption that they might be legitimate, but have accidentally purchased a dodgy list) I though I’d list them here if the emails don’t stop.

If your name is on this list and you think you’re innocent and can prove it, it will, of course, be removed. If the mail header shows it’s coming from your server and you’ve ignored unsubscribe requests you can explain why. Your protestations will be published along with the other evidence, and Internet users can decide your innocence or guilt.

05th June 2012 Tech Users Centre, Inc. 60 Cannon St. London
05th June 2012 mynewsdesk.com
05th June 2012 Simply Media Network, LTD., 48 Charlotte St, London (aka Comunicado Limited 6/43 Bedford St)
03rd June 2012 panopticsi.com
02nd June 2012 Marketing Empire UK (websitedesigncity.co.uk)
01st June 2012 quickmailing.co.uk (Smilepod, 23 Rose Street
Covent Garden )
01st June 2012 Comunicado Limited 6/43 Bedford St
01st June 2012 domainmail (on behalf of Insured Health)
31st May 2012 National Training Resources Limited
31st May 2012 backbonemarketing.co.uk, backboneconnect.co.uk PO Box 4380 Tamworth.
31st May 2012 Comunicado Limited 6/43 Bedford
29th May 2012 Nuance Communications
25th May 2012 Comunicado Ltd, 6/43 Bedford Street
24th May 2012 Oxeta
24th May 2012 www.datadeals.co.uk
24th May 2012 Comunicado Limited
22nd May 2012 Accountingoffice.co.uk, 199 New Road, Skewen
16th May 2012 Consulmax (emaila-company.co.uk)
16th May 2012 domainmail (webdoctor.org)
11th April 2012 Easymailit.com