The Tech - Online EditionMIT's oldest and largest
newspaper & the first
newspaper published
on the web
Boston Weather: 29.0°F | Mostly Cloudy

Over 1,000 People Receive ccpeople Spam E-mail

By Zareena Hussain

It began with simple curiosity.

On Friday morning, Smita K. Edulji '02 was in Athena with a friend checking the e-mail lists to which she was subscribed when one name popped up that perplexed her. The list was both private and invisible, meaning Edulji could see neither the members nor the administrator of the list.

Intrigued, she sent out an e-mail to the list, trying to find out who was on it.

"I initially thought what it was was some personal group that someone had created," Edulji said.

When she sent out that e-mail, Edulji received a message back that made her know she hadn't sent the e-mail to just a few friends, she said. A message from the MITmail servers warned her the list ccpeople was so large that not all the people on the list received her e-mail.

"And then, it all just started," Edulji said.

A barrage of messages soon followed. In excess of 150 e-mails were sent to the list, which, according to Joanne Costello, coordinator of information technology support planning in Information Systems, had more than 1,600 addresses. Mostly, the list referenced other large MIT-hosted mailing lists. The only individuals named on ccpeople were from outside MIT, Costello said.

However, the barrage of e-mail messages did not pose any serious problems to the Athena mail servers, Costello said. This was because none of the messages used up a large amount of memory. While a total of 240,000 e-mails (150 messages to 1,600 users) sounds impressive, it is actually small in comparison to the amount of traffic a server can handle, she said.

However, while Athena survived unscathed, most ccpeople's mailboxes did not.

Ironically, the spam was created by members of the list itself. The first few e-mails to the list were sent by those who were, like Edulji, curious to solve the puzzle of what all those on ccpeople had in common.

One person wrote, "Not to start a whole who is everyone' fest, but this is a little odd, no?"

Some suggested that the list was everything from "a class of 2000 thing," to a "concert choir thing," to a hack.

"Whoever is behind this is probably laughing so hard right now," one person wrote to the list.

However, not all subscribed to the list were amused by the first few e-mails.

The messages soon snowballed. Most that followed came from people e-mailing the list asking to be removed from the list. One even threatened he would sue the administrator.

Creator tries to shut down list

In the meantime, soon after the e-mails had started, the until-then-elusive administrator, Alankar Chhabra G, tried to delete the list. Chhabra had created the list two years ago to inform students of international events happening in Boston, but said he ended up never using it and had totally forgotten about it until last Friday.

"I basically tried to delete the list an hour after Smita's e-mail," Chhabra said. When he still saw mail being sent to the list a few hours later, he went directly to Costello, who informed him the list would not be deleted until 2 a.m. the next day.

Because the list included other groups and not individual names, people could not use commands such as blanche to take themselves off the list.

Since it was nearly impossible to decipher with any certainty which MITlist an individual was subscribed to that in turn was subscribed to ccpeople, no one on the list could remove themselves before 2 a.m., when the list was ultimately shut down. Chhabra e-mailed the list that it would be shut down by 2 a.m., but that did not stem the tide of e-mails.

Some e-mails bordered on the malicious, with one person using an alias to send seven copies of a Shakespearean soliloquy to the entire list.

Others used the list as ways to advertise events, such as concerts, film series, the fall festival, and Leadershape.

Some use list as social outlet

The prospect of closing down the list elicited another, unexpected response. Several people asked if they could stay on the list.

After coming to terms with the idea that the list would become obsolete in a few hours, a mad dash to preserve the spirit of what had happened that day began.

One person created a zephyr class called ccpeople to which people on the original ccpeople mailing list could voluntarily subscribe.

Others tried to figure out a time when everyone one who wanted to could find the other people who had been a part of the phenomenon of ccpeople. They agreed on the Muddy Charles Pub in Walker Memorial at 4 p.m. Monday.

Legendary East Campus resident Jack Florey, using a World Wide Web-based address, even joined the fray. Florey encouraged those who had created the zephyr class and who had decided on a place and time to meet.

But at this point, most spent the time enjoying the unstoppable avalanche of e-mails before the 2 a.m. deadline would bring them to a halt.

"It's bloody great," one person wrote, labeling himself a "ccpeople victim"

"It's brilliant! It's wonderful, it's life affirming nonsense," wrote Javier Chavez '01.

"I thought the influx was pretty funny," said Susan E. Rushing '99. "It was nice to see that some MIT students have a sense of humor."

"It was one of the funniest things I've seen since I've been at MIT," said Ashok Eastman '99, who was also on the list.

But despite the revelry of the weekend, according to the bartender on hand at the pub Monday afternoon, no horde of people showed up at 4 p.m.

Friday's barrage not uncommon

The snowball effect that happened starting with Edulji's e-mail Friday, "is actually a very common phenomenon," said Assistant Professor of Media Arts and Sciences Judith S. Donath, head of the Sociable Media research group. "It happens quite often."

In these situations, when people find themselves on mailing lists they don't want to be on, a lot of the responses tend to be "a little like people honking their horns," Donath said.

People think "I have been bothered, so other people can be bothered," she said.

Often people, at the time they send an e-mail asking to be taken off a list or complaining about an e-mail list don't realize they are sending their message to so many other people, she said.

"People conflate the message process with the list," Donath said. At some point, "there is no reasoned response."

Anne R. Lavin, a research staffer in the department of foreign languages and literatures who also found herself on ccpeople said, "I found it quite interesting how many people clearly didn't understand what was going on in pretty fundamental ways - that these complaints of theirs were going to everyone, and hence creating only further annoyance"

"The local users didn't comprehend that lists took overnight to go away; most of them couldn't figure out how they were on the list at all, but that were on these other lists which had been subscribed, etc.," she said.

However, even the attempts at creating a community of ccpeople proves a virtual model of very common human reactions, Donath said.

"It's like running into people at a party," Donath said. "It's an excuse to say hello. Because there is an event you just shared, it breaks down some of the barriers to communication."

List provides social opportunities

Rushing saw the list as an opportunity to meet new people and reunite with old friends.

"Since I knew many of the people sending the messages, I thought it would be fun to meet up with them. I actually didn't realize that my message was going out to so many people," Rushing said.

"I think it only could have really happened at MIT," Eastman said. "It's just a reflection of the fact that MIThas no sense of community and people are searching for a way to meet people outside of their ordinary sphere of interaction,"

However, while many of the people on the list have chalked up what happened to chance occurrence, and despite facing the monotonous task of deleting hundreds of e-mails are willing to put damage to their disk quotas behind them, Chhabra, the creator of the list, said that he has learned a valuable lesson from the experience.

After being subjected to five times the e-mails sent to the ccpeople list from irate students, Chhabra said, "I just wish it never happened."

Chhabra said the e-mails he personally received ranged from "understanding," to "negative," to "pretty inappropriate."

He also offered advice to others. "It's not a good idea to create your own mailing list," he said. "Anyone can send anything to the mailing list" once created.