To err is human... to blame your computer for your mistakes is even more human. It is downright natural.

Site Advisor? Site Misadvisor!

Filed under: Rants

Site Advisor is a downloadable tool from McAfee that claims to protect Internet users from all kinds of Web-based security threats and annoyances including spyware, adware, unwanted software, spam, pop-ups, online fraud and identity theft. Site Advisor’s so-called “innovative technology” appears to be, basically, just a bot that amongst other things, signs up for things like product registrations, services, community access, and newsletters using a one-off email address.

And mailing lists!

They claim that the volume and “spamminess” of any subsequent mails following a sign-up can be tracked. What they do seem to have completely overlooked is that, if their bot signs up for a mailing list, it/they will get mail. And if it so happens that they have signed up to a medium volume – or, heaven forbid – a high volume – mailing list, they’ll receive a significant amount of mail.

A significant amount of mail does not equate to spam!

What they appear to be doing is simply measuring the amount of email that any given one-off email address receives. If that address receives an unreasonable amount of mail, the assumption is made that the site it was used on must be involved in spamming. Not unsuprisingly, the Site Advisor FAQS don’t provide any information as to exactly how much mail they class as “unreasonable”

Unfortunately their “innovative technology” also doesn’t appear to be able to tell the difference between junk and genuine mail list traffic. Which is why Site Advisor has classified the Web Standards Group web site as “approach with caution” rather than “safe”. After signing up (quite deliberately) to the group’s mailing list, Site Advisor received an average of 193 emails per week.

Yes? And?

Well, apparently, this is quite enough for Site Advisor to flag the site up as a possible spammer – despite the fact that the average SpamAssassin score was -2 (the SpamAssassin default score for junk mail is usually +5). It seems quite clear that no attempt has been made to actually look at the incoming mail. No – from Site Advisor’s viewpoint, 193 emails in 7 days is obviously all that is needed to label a site as a source of spam.

Interestingly enough, when I signed up to the Web Standards Group mail list recently, I received a ‘please confirm your address’ mail that required me to go back to the site to confirm that, yes, I did want to subscribe. So, if Site Advisor are receiving 193 mails per week, their bot must have not only completed the sign-up form but then picked up the auto-generated subscription email and gone back to the site to confirm its subscription!

And Site Advisor still claim the site might be spamming. What a pity their bot didn’t read its second mail properly, go to the site and simply adjust its mailing list settings.

All this goes to prove that automated tools are just about as dumb as you can get. They cannot make sweeping generalisations or classify sites accurately unless a human intervenes. The issue here is that this tool could create major problems for anyone who is running a mailing list and offers web-based sign-up. Site owners may be classed as spammers for offering genuine discussion resources.

Frankly I’d suggest users avoid this tool like the plague. Until Site Advisor offers a responsible classification system that doesn’t rely completely on automated systems, it is likely to do more harm than good.

Finally, just to add insult to injury, none of the so-called contact points on Site Advisor’s Contact Us page actually work. Now how’s that for responsible?

Published: October 13th 2006