The Web has plenty for the Rat and other information warriors to

Each week, some new bandwidth-sucking attraction pops up: a dancing baby, an online
gambling den, some other form of electronic debauchery to waste users’ browsing time.

Now the Rat has found a whole new subtle and insidious reason to hate the Web.
What’s with these free e-mail accounts?

Just when the cyberrodent thought he had his network policies tightened down with
official-use-only messages that appeared every time users tried to send mail to outside
addresses, his mail logs started filling up with Hotmail.com hits.

The reason behind the Rat’s mail crackdown was simple: money. He’s read all

the studies about the true cost of e-mail in terms of personnel hours and computing
resources. If users are going to spend so much time and bandwidth on e-mail, it better
relate to their jobs.

The Rat got the corner-office crowd to agree to a subtle warning rather than a complete
shutdown of external mail access. And the warnings seemed to be working.

What really happened was that users moved their personal message traffic off the .gov
domain and onto free Web services. Sure, the federal systems had been relieved of
offending mail. But Web mail takes at least twice as long to access and read as regular
e-mail, shoving more traffic through the firewall—something the Rat hoped to avoid.

On top of that, free mail accounts attract spam like crazy.

The furry one knows. He has his own free account, PacketRat@netscape.net, that he uses from home.
It takes a while to pull down a three-frame, highly graphical representation of a mail
interface to his browser, along with all the advertisements wedged into the borders. Just
having one of these accounts marks a user as a spam target.

Spam is the last thing the cyberrodent wants his agency director to see when strolling
through cubicleville. It was the chief’s aversion to spam that started the outside
e-mail crackdown in the first place.

Someone registered on some Web site by giving an agency e-mail address, probably the
director himself, and soon the mailbox was full of ads for free trial access to
pornographic teleconference sites. Where else had that browser been?

But the wired one couldn’t block Web access only to the Hotmail and Netscape Corp.
domains. Users would sign up for some other free service and use that until the Rat set
the firewall to block that domain, too.

First, the Rat tried persuasion. He asked external Web mail account users to exercise
restraint in using them as a back channel for coffeepot chatter.

That worked for about three hours. Then somebody sent an e-mail to the .gov addresses
of a whole department from an anonymous free mail account, speculating on how long it had
been since Monica Lewinsky had gone to the dry cleaners.

So the Rat got nasty. He set his proxy servers to capture full details on Web post
commands, giving him names and passwords for every free mail user in the agency. Then he
wrote a script that would automatically pull the data from the log file, log in and delete
the accounts of repeat offenders.

The phone rang only minutes after the script had launched. It was the director,
complaining, “I’m having problems getting an outside Web site.”

Drat, thought the Rat. He had forgotten to make an exception list for the script. As
angry managers started to line up outside his cubicle, he wondered how long it would take
to reverse his handiwork. 

The Packet Rat once managed networks but now spends his time ferreting out bad
packets in cyberspace. E-mail him at rat@gcn.com.

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