Safe sex on the internet

Most people would think that there is little more to be said about 'being careful' on the Internet. Thanks to the idiot-proof programming of most browsers these days, parents are now cognizant with the ways of ensuring that they are the ones to teach their children about the birds and the bees. However, it is not just the kids that need protection and I am drawn to communicating this information so that the time spent deleting junk mail from my in-box has some justification. OK, so it is not even particularly revolutionary to announce that I receive unsolicited email some of which are sent from pornographic websites. Nevertheless, it might not be so clear to many users how the 'art' of sending pornographic junk mail has evolved over the years. This is of interest to the academic for two main reasons. The first, and perhaps most alarming, is that the good name of academia is being sullied in the seedy business of electronic pornography. The second has to do with the development of sociological research using various aspects of the Internet as the primary source of empirical data, which is really my reason for writing this.

The story may have begun around 6 or 7 years ago, although it is more likely to have started with the very birth of the Internet (it might be more accurate to conceive of this story as the enema in the birth process). The very well-known experience of receiving email from unknown senders with blatantly sexual content was farcical since even the subject header of the mails revealed details of a sexual nature. Undoubtedly, these strategies were sufficient to attract the fresh young user to material that required much less courage to access than the usual rental video or newsstand top shelf (and, at this time, people were much less concerned about who could see their activities online).

While it would be nice to think that these primitive strategies are long forgotten and that we can no longer remember how they appeared, it is not the case. Even in this high-tech age of sending sex-email, there continue to be the rookies who do not have the intelligence to outwit the most basic filtering programme. So yes, we would see things like 'do you like hot sex' or 'hottest young teens' and it was relatively easy to deduce that this had nothing to do with that book proposal to Routledge or the overdue exam manuscripts. However, for some shrewder porn sites, times have changed. The strategies are now much more creative, bordering on the intelligent, and are much more persuasive to trapping the unaware academic into webs from which it is impossible to escape. So, I offer the following details of some practical advice to avoid wasting that unforgiving second and clicking 'open' on the junk-mail message.

A guide to how they sex-up your in-box.The basic email:

This one we have already discussed and is easily spotted by the unknown sender and sexual content of the subject header and message. One of the recent trends of this kind of organisation is to use a random sender address, which allows sites to send you mail from a different email address each time. Thus, if you are clever enough to work out how to 'block-sender', then this will not be sufficient as the next time they want to send you something, it will be from a different address.

The disguised email:

Also known as the 'spam', disguised mails do not reveal any of the message's content until you have opened it. The email address of the sender and the subject of the message do not necessarily reveal enough information to conclude that the message is an attempt to get you to a pornographic website. Alternatively, the mail might appear to be from someone or some company that appears reputable or known and, again, only by opening the message will you know that you have not just received 'the offer of a life time.

The friendly email:

One of the little extras with these mails is that the message contents often start with your name and might read 'Dear Lisa' as if the sender really did know you. The message might also conclude with a respectable salutation and a seemingly unique name. Indeed, the presence of any commercial website that is seeking to be 'clicked-on' might take the form of only a single website link with the teasing message 'I hope you are well, wondered if you wouldn't mind checking this out, thanks'. OK, so this fools nobody and it might not even seem that clever really. However, the example is paradigmatic for it mirroring the format of a standard email message. Unlike previous examples, where the content of the message remains deliberately commercial with many links, different fonts, colours, and so on, the friendly mail really looks like a genuine inquiry and so grabs your attention just enough for you to take a look at what it says.

The intriguing email:

This one will try to fool you into believing that you know the sender and that he/she is writing to you as if you are old friends, but that you have forgotten them completely. The email is dressed up in something relatively crude like 'I had a great time last week' or 'I have been wanting to write for a long time'. It might also come cloaked in content that appears to be of a reputable nature, with details of an organisation's name and a very formal way of greeting. However, it will undoubtedly provide a link to something and even if this seems reasonable, you can be sure it is not.

The reputable email:

This is perhaps the most alarming and devious method to trap the innocent academic taking a stroll through cyberspace that I have seen to date. The email sender appears to be from somebody within an academic university and is actually designed for people who have a basic level of understanding about email addresses and how they are constructed. Email addresses are constructed in a similar way to a postal address. Generally, they comprise three parts, one identifying the company or institution that the user works for, another identifying the categorisation of that kind of company, and finally the location of that institution by country or institution type. The standard format for academic universities is, for example, <>, the 'ox' identifying the university name as Oxford, the 'ac' signifying that it is a university or academic institution, and finally 'uk' representing the United Kingdom. Alternatively, within the USA, the extension for a university would simply be, < the former part denoting the university name, and the ending signifying it as an university. The 'reputable' sex email is able to appear as if it has been sent by someone from a university. Thus, the email might read as sent by <> suggesting that it is from a work-related colleague. Additionally, the subject might be of a relatively respectable nature and comprise something like 'Re: your inquiry' or 'for your interest'.

So, whether you are a new-age super-surfing academic or a traditional snail-mail kind of person who only checks email once a week, remember to be vigilant when glancing over those subject lines. Some of the major 'free' email companies such as hotmail offer the possibility to place junk mail in the trash folder before even having seen it. However, using such filter systems, which automatically detect when a message is from a junk address, can sometimes cause further difficulties if you are subscribed to a number of email groups-you might start losing messages. For safe-surfing, it is also useful to bear in mind the following details...

How did they get my address?

The cookie monsters

Most commercial websites operate with cookies, which are small files that are automatically downloaded onto your computer's temporary files (unless you have told it not to) when you go to the website. The file stays on your computer and is re-activated when you return to the company's website, whereupon it recognises the file and, sometimes, identifies you by your personal name that was registered last time you were there. These can be useful if you use a specific company regularly, as it allows your identity to be recognised through the site and may allow you to save time, since it will also have other relevant stored information that you will have entered some time earlier. However, what might not be so desirable to know is that this information can also be used by the company to track your movements on their sites so they can best decide upon the methods they must employ to address your needs. The same is true for a pornographic website, which, if by some unfortunate mishap you open a link that takes you to a porn-site, it is likely that this little file will download to your computer without you knowing it. From here, it is then possible for the site to send you all sorts of rubbish and you will be wondering for weeks how they send you this information.

The 'third party' clause

There was a time when subscribing to something online would be great, a fantastic new service giving details of new publications or latest news stories. Recently, however, free services have become saturated with further ways of ensuring that their sponsors are satisfied. In order to register with most free packages now, it is necessary to step through a number of procedures until you finally arrive at having subscribed to the service you want (by which time you have forgotten what it was anyway). In the early days, you were able to select some of the secondary services (the ones that you didn't know that you wanted) by checking a small box. Today, the opposite is true-you have to check the box to state that you do not want to receive emails about the latest gadget that can answer all your computer needs (again, which you did not know you had). This is not very different from the evolution of non-cyberspatial marketing strategies, where the responsibility is placed upon the consumer to tell the company that they do not want what they are offering. Yet, it preys upon the unaware browser who doesn't take time to read the small print and assumes that they would have to check the box if they wanted it.

Cybersexually transmitted diseases-the virus problem

Detecting messages that have viruses attached to them can be a pain, but generally they come in the form of an attachment with an unusual title. The difficulty with these messages is that they really are sent from somebody that you know who has fallen victim to the very same message. Some of the most notorious viruses in the last two years have been programmed so that, once contracted, they are then sent out to everybody in the address book of your own email software-without you knowing it. The next you will hear of it is by a rather upset message from somebody whom you infected. One simple rule to follow is that, if they do not name you at the start, don't open any attachment-it is most likely bulk-mail sent out to you and a thousand others. Even if you do not recognise the sender and it seems to be from an academic institution, do not open it.

However, if by chance you have opened the file and do not have any protection software, there might be one solution. If the virus you contract is not so great as to shut-down your entire computer, then you can also find some great websites online that offer one-time only free virus check and disinfection, much like an emergency ward at a hospital. Of course, their interest is for you to then buy their package, and here the hospital analogy breaks down into something more like private-health care. Nevertheless, as a last resort it can be a lifesaver.

Escaping the web

One final interesting characteristic of the porn-site is the way in which the page coding has been written, which prevents the user from getting out of the web. Again, this is a phenomenon that has evolved over the years. Initially, if one was conducting a basic search through any search engine online and inadvertently was taken to a pornographic website, then simply closing the browser window would be sufficient to end the connection. Today it is not the case. In the past, browsers have sought to ensure their sponsors are well paid by including a separate page that opens at the same time as the desired page, perhaps only in a very small sized window so as not to overwhelm the main screen. With e-porn, the strategy is to open a new window each time you close one. The result is that it is made impossible for the surfer to get out of this downward spiral of opening and reopening new e-porn websites. The strategy is to not let you out until you have found something that interests you.

The evolution of e-porn demonstrates an evolution in consumer competence in using the Internet. The strategies used by these companies has moved with the consumer and seek further ways of fooling him/her into stumbling upon their websites. If nothing else, this evolution is interesting for it also identifies how email has evolved. My latest messages are for 'Liquid Viagra', which, apparently, guarantees results 100% of the time and involves no pumps or surgeries. I cannot complain about this message since it very politely states that if I want to be removed from their list, then they will do so and they even add a closing a line saying that they honour all requests to be removed. Such details are very thoughtful indeed, though I imagine that as soon as I submit my credit card details for my first dose, I will stop receiving their mails.