Scientists Announce Algorithm To Trace Spammers

Scientists in Switzerland say they have developed an algorithm that can locate the source of spam and malware attacks. The researchers at the Audiovisual Communications Laboratory of the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology say the algorithm works by analyzing a small sampling of the computers on a given network and can isolate the one responsible for pumping out the spam.

“If you would like to find the source of a virus, malware or spam-attack it is impossible to track the status of all nodes on the Internet”, EPFL researcher Pedro Pinto said in a telephone interview with PCWorld. “That would mean you would need about 1 billion sensors. And you don’t want to monitor the entire Internet,” he added.

With the algorithm only 10-20% of nodes on a given network would be needed. The researchers say it could also be used to locate the source of malware distributions and everything from the source of a false rumor on Facebook to the source of a disease outbreak or biological weapon attack. They expect to have interest from governments, defense contractors and security firms.

Sounds incredibly useful and interesting but the researchers published a detailed paper about how the algorithm works in a scholarly journal. This makes me wonder just how much information they gave out and if that data can be used by spammers and others to thwart the algorithm. Do you think discoveries like this should be kept out of journals and other public documents if there is a potential for misuse?

Written by Sue Walsh


  1. Nina Monteni · August 27, 2012

    Hm, not sure this type of tracing is legal. What is more, even if the algo works, it can trace down a computer, don’t the human behind it. With zombie computers this tracing isn’t of much help because you catch an innocent victim. Btw, you can catch a spam-sending computer with much simpler tools. This algo seems totally out of place. Do the researchers have to justify some billions in funding they got and they come with a “We’ll Save the World” type of deliverable?!

  2. Samantha Chavez · August 30, 2012

    You posted a valid question, author. Now that it
    is an open information everybody including spammers now have the idea. But I
    guess there is always that risk. Scientists, it seems, have been programmed to
    share whatever novel concept or discovery they have to the public regardless of
    how the readers are going to take or use that information. Let’s just hope that
    the first people to maximize this discovery are those that help kill spam and
    not the spammers themselves. Otherwise the spammers will have a formidable
    defense that can help them become indispensable for a very long time.

  3. Matthew Cook · August 30, 2012

    @Nina, I guess that’s just how scientists have
    been designed these days. I think the best people to work on these are the
    hackers and spammers themselves. After all, they have the most fabulous ideas
    on how to get around “strong” security protocols. Just imagine them like
    Leonardo di Caprio’s character in Catch Me if You Can. He had a change of heart
    later, right, and helped the FBI capture criminals that function like him. I
    can think of the same thing here, though you’re right. This may not be the most
    legal way out there. It sounds very sneaky.

  4. Farah · August 30, 2012

    @Matthew: I love that movie, Matt, and you gave
    a very cool analogy. Seriously, though, I’m not so sure if this is going to be
    very helpful. Perhaps by the time this so-called discovery is harnessed, the
    spammers have already found a way to circumvent it, found the loophole so they
    are able to survive. Besides, as mentioned, it’s found in a PUBLIC journal.
    Spammers are not stupid to NOT read any security updates. It’s part of their
    job after all. I also don’t think this discovery is going to get rid of the
    source or the root cause for the proliferation of spam in our inboxes and

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