It was late friday night and unlike other 23 year olds Greg wasn’t out having a fun night. In fact, he was at home sitting behind his desk like almost every waking moment of the past 5 days. Pizza delivery boxes were scattered at the one side of his desk and a few empty Club Mate bottles were lying around. More importantly though, there were still one half full bottle and things were starting to tie together on his computer screen.
You may be tempted to think that this is a really sad situation for a 23 year to be in. Or maybe you are thinking that at least Greg is not getting into any trouble. You’be be wrong! With his latest work Greg is about to become a very rich man. Also, he’s about to get himself into more trouble than he could ever have imagined.
It started two weeks earlier. Annoyed as hell after being assigned “spam cleanup duty” at work and after spending at least a few hours despising the low-life spammers he got the idea. He would bet that he can write a program more intelligent than those lousy spammers. What the heck, he’d bet that he would be able to write a program to fool them into thinking his program was someone willing to pay them to spam other sites! Image the moment they realize they have been posting spam on fake web sites for weeks at the command of a computer algorithm and they won’t get a cent for their dirty work! That will be some justice!
After growing up with a dead beat father that was in and out of prison more often that the wind changed direction Greg didn’t want any of that. He also didn’t want to keep company his dad did and he had a suspicion that the online spamming industry isn’t full of a bunch of wholesome people. He decided he would truly give his program a life of its own, a life with a real identity.
After searching the dark depths of the internet, he found a suitable identity. Juana Perez, US citizen living in Mexico city looking after her elderly dad and her sister’s 14 year old sun. Or at least, that is what the official records state. Reality is that Juana disappered some time ago - got involved with a boy that was still trying to prove his worth to a local gang. Her dad passed away shortly before she disappeared, wasn’t reported, noted or noticed, Mexico City had plenty of younger than 80 year old people passing away from less than natural causes. And her sister’s 14 year old son? Well, that was the reason Juana’s identity was up for sale. Juana sister has left him for dead, his grandpa was gone and he knew things wouldn’t go well for him if he asked the police to investigate Juana’s disappearance. He needed money to buy into a gang and he heard before that there is a market for an identity without a body.
Greg ofcourse didn’t know the whole story, but he could probably guess the gist of it - you can’t buy an identity online and be completely naive about it. But that would be the last transaction that he would have to make. After that he could slowly bring back Juana to the online world and then focus her profile on his payback efforts.
Things got off to a pretty good start. Turns out being bored at work and reading every single thing ever written about AI, pshycology and the general gullability of people can help a lot when you are trying to fool spammers using a fake profile.
The program he wrote, Juana if you will, was pretty simple. It would ‘hunt’ spammers in raids. Every raid it would start with creating a honeypot for the spammers. The honeypot was constructed by randomly choosing a word from the latest popular post on reddit, search for that word on the internet, take the top 5000 hits, copy about half of them at random, modify how the websites look and finally upload all the sites to a free hosting service.
Once the honeypot is set and the next stage begins, The Sting. The program would create a pseudo profile on a few dodgy websites and post offers for spamming all the sites in the honeypot. It would offer about 0.00001 USD per message, high enough to appeal to greed, but not too high to make spammers suspicious. And the spamming wasn’t so difficult that the spammers would be too pissed once the site goes down and they don’t get paid. Rinse, repeat, revenge!
It could have stayed at that, but other ideas already crept into Greg’s mind. Ideas that would allow him to make a buck or two from the spammers. After all, that would enable him to let the program use better services and pay for that with the money made.
Money brought another realities with it. It attract flies, flies that wants to know where the money comes from, flies that wants a share of the money, flies that work for the goverment, flies that can quickly gather around you and make your life extremely unpleasant. And money attracts spiders, spiders that want the money, all of it, not only parts. And spiders spin a web around you, they wait for you to come. And when you come they entangle you. Then they wait for the panic to set in before they deliver their poison. And then again wait until the poison has done its job. And then they entangle you more. Not at all pleasant. But Greg was prepared for this, that is why he bought a fake identity.
It was all pretty simple to get a few bucks out of the whole thing. In addition changing the look of the websites for the honeypot, the program would also add some code to the website that would run on run on the computer of any visitor. So that while the spammers are spamming, they would also unwittingly be mining some bitcoin or whatever the latest flavour of the virual currency is. Money would be owned by the program and after some careful setting up Greg could step away and let the program terrorize spammers for infinity. If anyone ever got on to this and investigated real hard they would find Juana. Or rather, they won’t find Juana.
Updating the program still required some manual intervention and that made Greg uncomfortable. He read about self learning programs and felt that he could probably get the program to evolve a bit on its own my immetation. He would still need to deploy updates, but at least the program would be changing all the time making it hard for the spammers to identify the honeypot and the online profile that the program generates.
It was this problem Greg was working on with all the pizza boxes scattered around him. He got an early version working, but it was very basic and not very successful. He was just about finished with a more refined version. This version would learn from other high profile sites how they are trying to prevent spam and deploy a slightly weaker version of that to the honeypot so that spammers doesn’t figure out spamming the honey pot is too easy and allowing them a sufficient amount of time on the site to earn the program some money.
Greg made the last change, ran the test to make sure he didn’t make any obvious blunders and then it was time to deploy. First he had to copy everything onto a brand new flash drive, one that he ‘found’ or bought with cash. Then he would make his normal run to the pizza store. There he would be able to pick up the Wifi from the office 5 blocks over using his special antenna built into his screen. He would then boot up his secure read only operating system, log onto the Tor network, access a VPN from there, bounce the traffic a few more times and then finally copy the code to a server where it would operate from.
Greg held sat on both his thumbs, it would take the program at least 30 minutes to generate the honeypot and profiles, but he had a pizza to wait for and then hopefully savior the taste of victory and pizza! He made himself wait until his pizza arrived before checking if the first stage went well. It did! Finally, Greg would get some sleep tonight!!
The only way Greg could truly verify if the program was working was to check if the bitcoin address of the program received any money. Since all bitcoin transactions are public he could easily check this without needing to take any precautions or arousing suspicion. Bitcoins slowly trickled in. Slowly was on over statement. At the rate the money was comming in it meant that at most 1 or 2 of his honeypot sites got picked up by spammers. But for the next few weeks this remained and Greg felt good that his program dealt some justice to a few spammers and at least in principle made a profit from it.
Over the next month Greg slowly moved on from his spammer retribution project. The daily checks of the bitcoin balance became every other day, then every few days and finally bi-weekly. Greg returned to his normal life of mildly interesting work and an extremely distracting internet full of information.
It was Wednesday, two weeks after the supposed bi-weekly bitcoin balance check. Greg prograstinated like most other software developers and he didn’t expect the balance check to deliver a better kick that the latest tech news. But Greg couldn’t believe what he saw! The balance was the equavalent of 1000 USD in bitcoins, it was 1.01 USD last time he checked! And that wasn’t all, the first week after his last balance check, the program netted 10 USD, the next day 30 USD, the day thereafter 50 USD and 200 USD the day before. The program was not only making money, it seemed to be making more money every day!
The excitement in his stomach quickly mixed with more than a healthy dose of fear! Greg was feeling nausiance and the world started spinning too quick for him to handle. He tried holding it back, tried getting up to go to the rest rooms, tried to pinch himself and wake up. Instead he managed to miss his keyboard and vomit below his desk on the new carpets they installed in the office the week before!
Luckily Greg’s boss didn’t know why he was feeling sick and she sent him home straight away. She told him to get some rest, see a doctor and eat some decent food for a change - not pizza. None of this registered in Gregs head, he simply took a cab home and went deep into thought. Obviously the program must have evolved in some way that made it a heck of a lot more successful. This was great, that is what he worked so hard on afterall. His work would probably be able to earn him a PHD in a flinch. But it also meant that the program was starting to make a noticable amount of money, an amount that someone would care about.
When he got home he quickly switched on his computer to check the latest balance, 5000 USD!!! This was bad. ‘No’, he thought, ‘this is not bad’, afterall, he was cautious from the start, acutally, more like paranoid. But still, he didn’t seriously think it would go any further than spamming the spammers. This was real money being made, and made, not taken. No one would miss any money from their wallet or their account, he was simply exploiting spammers to mine virtual money for him.
There was something else stirring inside Greg, stronger than fear or excitement, curiosity. Greg wanted to know how the program was making so much money, what did the program do, how did it trick so many spammers into spamming his honeypots? Did it raise the amount of money it was willing to pay per message and thus seriously pissing off spammers when they don’t get paid? He was still feeling a little sick, but at the same time confident that he would be able to stomach at least one medium Margarita if he asks them to go slow on the cheese. Although that would sound be suspicious.