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07.22.09

The ESPN Porn Scam

The scandal surrounding the illegal nude video of ESPN star Erin Andrews has reached your computer. Douglas Rushkoff on how an army of hackers is using porn to break into your bank account.

On the Internet, there's no currency more readily accepted—and exploitable—than a few pixels of porn. This week's leak of a video, apparently taped illegally, of ESPN star Erin Andrews changing in her hotel room has kept her fans busy downloading torrents, and the gossip sites busy generating chatter and speculation.

But the Andrews video has also fueled the spread of highly toxic computer viruses, and quite probably financial thievery and terrorism, by hackers who know the real law of the Internet: The closer an Internet user is to a set of videotaped breasts, the more likely he (and 99% of those who fall into this trap are male) will be to click on whatever he's told to.

Porn has become our enemies' ultimate control mechanism, turning a nation of late-night Internet horndogs into an unconscious army of cyberterrorists. Talk about sleeper cells.

Here's how the hackers’ Erin Andrews seduction scheme works: A user curious to see the sportscaster's nude video searches through Google, or poses a question on YahooAnswers. The hacker supplies a link to a site that looks like CNN or any other seemingly credible news channel or streaming video service. When the user clicks on "play"—just milliseconds away from what is promised to be Erin Andrews' naked bosom—a pop-up window comes up (here’s a safe way to see how it works). It contains a blurry image from the video, frozen in pause, along with a message informing the user that his browser has blocked the "live video player" from broadcasting the clip.

Of course, by approving the installation of the video player, the tantalized Internet voyeur has actually installed malware onto his computer, turning his hard drive and processor into part of an ever-expanding army of drone machines capable of wreaking havoc on everything from banks to the Pentagon. Mercifully, while the malware is being installed on your machine, the site usually delivers on its promise of a full viewing of the Andrews video, or some other payoff.

So it's really just an exchange of value—the problem is that it’s a trade the user doesn’t realize he's making, and one that might unwittingly place him in the middle of a criminal enterprise. By hiding behind anonymous email and Web accounts, hackers put porn-addicted Internet users to work for them.

Specifically, these hackers, and the armies of computers they control, pay in porn to decode the scrambled letters many Internet sites now use to prevent computers from generating spam or signing up for fake Web accounts that can be harvested for nefarious purposes. Called "captcha," it's essentially a test that's easy for a human to complete, but difficult or impossible for a computer to do.

So instead of wasting its own processing cycles trying to descramble the jumbled letters, these hacker computers farm out the work to the millions of round-the-clock porn users. One program I’ve seen takes the form of a virtual stripper "game," in which the sexy avatar offers to remove another garment for each "task" the player completes. The user completes the captcha for the machine to plug in at one location on the Internet, and at another—like a chicken pecking at a doorbell—the human gets his pellet of porn.

By getting in on the Internet's most dependable growth industry, computers have the currency they need to get human beings to complete the tasks that machines can't complete themselves. In a sense, they hire us to do their dirty work for them, and pay us in provocative pixels.

Meanwhile, as we perform the mechanical tasks too lowly for computers, the computers get to pass themselves off as human, commandeer another few thousand Hotmail accounts, spam the Internet universe with more alluringly packaged viruses, and take over even more of our machines. And so the cycle continues.

So what? Ask the Pentagon about last month's security breach—likely a botnet attack originating in China, or any of the dozens of U.S. banks whose computers have been infected with bots operated by six guys in Ukraine. And these attacks are considered to be mere "tests" for the onslaught to follow. Porn has become our enemies' ultimate control mechanism, turning a nation of late-night Internet horndogs into an unconscious army of cyberterrorists. Talk about sleeper cells.

As long as porn, especially value-added porn—such as a famous, beautiful sportscaster in a banned video—remains in relatively scarce supply, it will also remain the ultimate Internet currency, providing computers and hackers behind them with the ammunition they need to keep at least a few million of us doing their bidding. One can only imagine the Obama administration getting involved on the basis of national-security interests, using the defense budget to subsidize free porn and putting these hackers out of business.

Douglas Rushkoff, a professor of media studies at The New School University and producer and correspondent for the PBS Frontline Digital Nation project, is the author of numerous books, including Cyberia, ScreenAgers, Media Virus, and, most recently, Life Inc., released this month by Random House.