26 April 2009

Immersed in deception

Filed under: deception, intelligence, spam — David Wood @ 2:43 pm

Over the last few weeks, I’ve received a lot of flattery and what looks like friendly advice.

Here’s an example:

Ah! This is the sort of thing I have been looking for. I’m doing some research for an article. You should add buttons to the bottom of your posts to digg, stumble, etc your content. I think this is great and want to share it, but as it stands, I’m a lazy lazy person. Just kidding!

And here’s another:

I’ve just found your blog and I really like it. This is the first time I’ve written a comment. I’m not sure what to say, but please keep up the good work!

I found these compliments while checking the comments posted in reply to my own postings – either here, on my personal blog, or on the Symbian corporate blog.

At first, I felt pleased. Then I realised I was being deceived. These comments were being placed on my blogs, simply to tempt unwary readers to click on the links in them. These links lead to sites promoting bargain basement laptops, products made from the Acai “super berry”, and numerous other wild and wacky stuff (much of it not suitable for work). Now that I’m aware of these “link bait” comments, I notice them all over the web. They’re presumably being generated automatically.

The Symbian corporate blog is hosted by WordPress and relies on a service from Akismet to sort incoming comments into “pending” and “spam”. On the whole, it does a remarkably good job. But sometimes (not too surprisingly) it gets things wrong:

  • There are false positives – genuine messages that are classified onto the spam list
  • There are false negatives – deceptive messages that are classified onto the pending queue.

The task of sorting comments becomes even harder when “linkbacks” are taken into account. By default, WordPress lists “pingbacks” and “trackbacks”, when other blogs reference one of your articles. I haven’t yet made up my mind how useful this is. But I do know that it’s another avenue for deceptive postings to get their links onto your webpage. Some of these other postings re-use text from the original posting, chopping it up to give the appearance that a human being is providing intelligent analysis of your ideas. But again, it’s now my view that these postings are being generated algorithmically, just in order to receive and harvest incoming clicks.

Companies like Akismet are clearly involved in some kind of escalating arms race. As they learn the tricks employed by one generation of spam-creating program, another generation finds ways to mask the intent more skilfully.

I guess it’s like the way human intelligence is often thought to have emerged. According to widespread opinion, early humans existing in large groups found it beneficial to be able to:

  • Deceive each other about their true intentions;
  • Pretend to be supportive of the ends of the group, but to free-ride on the support of others when they could get away with it;
  • See through the deceptive intentions of others;
  • To keep track of what person A thinks about what person B thinks about person C…

This kind of evolutionary arms race was, according to this theory, one of the causes of mushrooming human brain power.

For example, to quote from Mario Heilmann’s online paper Social evolution and social influence: selfishness, deception, self-deception:

This paper endeavors to point out that the selfish interests of individuals caused deception and countermeasures against deception to become driving forces behind social influence strategies. The expensive and wasteful nature of negotiation and impression management is a necessary and unavoidable consequence of this arms race between deception and detection.

Natural selection created genetic dispositions to deceive, and to constantly and unconsciously suspect deception attempts. In a competitive, selfish, and war-prone world, these techniques, proven in billions of years in evolution, still are optimal. Therefore they are reinforced by cultural selection and learning. Conscious awareness of deception and countermeasures is not required, often even counterproductive. This is so because conscious deception is easier to detect and carries harsher sanctions.

Humans not only deceive, but also deceive themselves and others about the fact that they deceive, into believing that they do not deceive. This double deception makes the system so watertight, that it tends to evade detection even by psychologists.

Deception may be widespread in human society, but the associated increase in brainpower has had lots of more positive side-effects. I wonder if the same will result from the rapid arms race in electronic deception and counter-deception mechanisms – and whether this will be one means for genuine electronic intelligence to emerge.


  1. David, I had the same problems. I reasoned that so many people have blogs that leaving spam comments are an easy way to reach a large number of people in the face of ever more effective email spam blockers.
    The attack may be considered successful even if the comment doesn’t get authorised and displayed on yours site.

    Most people moderate their blogs and may out of curiosity follow a link before deciding a posting is spam. As well as warez and porn, this technique can also drive up the number of clicks on the target site and allows them to sell ad space.

    I think wordpress runs a blacklist scheme which you can sign up for. The canonical way of dealing with automated pest is to use a CAPTCHA – a turin test to tell the difference between man and machine.

    Even CAPTCHA can be defeated with a cunning scheme.
    A web server can pass a CAPTCHA to another website which serves porn to its users one they have solved the puzzle.

    For a novel use. See http://recaptcha.net/
    which uses your visitors to help decipher scanned manuscripts.

    Comment by Twm — 7 May 2009 @ 1:24 pm

  2. I have the same problem, and it’s only recently — so it must be a new spambot that everyone’s using.

    I do two things
    * Moderate comments after 7 days
    * Read the comment to see if it shows any evidence of reading this specific post.

    Comment by Joel West — 13 May 2009 @ 4:23 am

  3. Taking the angle about how this enables natural selection of intelligence to occur, I guess most people go through this as part of their psychological development – in arenas such as dating or getting on with superiors or subordinates at work. I know of friends who have gone through break ups of their romantic relationships, for example, and have to project an impression of being the “nice person” out of the whole incident to the rest of their community, to increase their dating potential in future. Likewise, I know of people whose relationship with a colleague has suffered, and coming out as the “good guy” is important for ones career.

    In almost all cases I’ve noticed a depressing amount of cunning and deception occurs. It’s interesting that when I’ve seen this happen, it’s not always the person with the highest IQ or the most ethical person that “wins” – it’s the person with the strongest social ties and trust networks that “wins” – sometimes with unfair results.

    I also think most human beings go through a phase of idealism and naivety growing up. Encountering people who make use of their personality makeup, the first signs that their EQ must harden is when they must:

    — See through the deceptive intentions of others;
    — To keep track of what person A thinks about what person B thinks about person C…

    Certainly others continue to

    — Deceive each other about their true intentions;
    — Pretend to be supportive of the ends of the group, but to free-ride on the support of others when they can get away with it;

    Does the latter category mean only the cunning, deceitful and ruthless survive?
    Ok, so I came up with this depressing hypothesis while reading your blog.

    On a more positive note, I believe good guys can survive and do exist. When I (for example) meet people who meet my ethical standards, my trust instinct allows me to drop my defences – also why I choose friends very carefully. In a community, being able to have a strong (trustworthy?) trust instinct allows one to form strong social ties, to defend against sole individuals who may try to manipulate or be deceptive towards my group for their own intentions. Also, being able to detect others who are falsely trying to win my trust, in order that they may use me or my resources to damage the reputation of someone more trustworthy, involves a huge amount of EQ. Conversely, I also reluctantly retaliate (and attempt to do so proportionately) when others try to take advantage of me, so that such individuals know there is a threat to their reputation if they decide to do so.

    Human beings only came to become the dominant species on Earth by learning to behave and co-operate in packs.

    Their is hope beyond relying on deception to cause further increases in our intelligence or of that of an artifical one, even if that means that deception must occur first to start this cycle.

    Although, the paragraph that mentions that people deceive themselves is frightening…

    Comment by chrisnsx — 27 May 2009 @ 11:32 pm

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