[ISN] DidTheyReadIt operations and security concerns

InfoSec News isn at c4i.org
Mon Aug 16 04:18:42 EDT 2004

Forwarded from: "Rob, grandpa of Ryan, Trevor, Devon & Hannah" <rslade at sprint.ca>

DidTheyReadIt is a new service on the net.  It has garnered some
attention from the privacy community already: I will deal with some of
that later.  I would like to examine the actual operations of the
service.  The discussion surrounding it has been marked by assumptions
and lack of knowledge.  Some assertions have been made that are at
odds with the actual operations.  DidTheyReadIt is both less, and
more, dangerous than has been made out.

As the name implies, it provides a kind of "return receipt" for email.  
It does this, of course, using Web bugs.  A "single pixel" image file
is called from the central host, using a hash that presumably
corresponds to the sender, subject, and receiver, looking like the

width="1" height="1" /  

(I have removed the surrounding angle brackets: hopefully this will
prevent any mailers from trying to render the HTML.)

Having obtained an account from DidTheyReadIt (and paid for the
privilege), there are two ways to use the service.


If you have WinXP or W2K (and a "standard" mailer) you can run a
background program on your computer.  I have downloaded the
installation program and made a cursory examination of it, but I have
strong reservations about actually running it on my system.  One can
assume that the process runs in the background, adds the Web bugs to
outgoing email traffic, and sends information to the central computer.  
However, even a brief analysis of the code indicates it can do more
than that.  Among other things it calls the kernel, uses the Registry,
and obtains information on privileges within your system.  These may
be valid activities within the context of the operation of the
program, but, given what the program must be doing, what else is it
doing?  There is a significant possibility for information leakage


You can use the program without running the background process.  To do
this, you append "didtheyreadit.com" to the email address.  If I
wanted to send a message to my rslade at isc2.org address, I would send
it to rslade at isc2.org.didtheyreadit.com.  The central computer then
reformats the email in HTML and adds the Web bug.  In this way,
obviously, DidTheyReadIt gets to read all the email I send.

When email is opened using a mailer that automatically calls for
information from the Web, the URL is requested, and the central
computer has confirmation that the individual actually read the email.  
DidTheyReadIt promises that they can tell you how long the email
remained open.  (In the tests that I've done so far this information
has been available in slightly under half of the cases.)

(When the URL is requested, a series of packets each containing a
single byte is sent.  Lauren Weinstein [see below] has noted that this
may be the way the Rampell measures how long the message remains open.  
In tests the file transfer time seems to vary, but has always been
shorter than the longest time that I've been "informed" a message has
remained open.  Others have theorized that the material transferred
may be scripting that remains active as long as the message is open,
passing information back to Rampell.  This does not seem to be the
case.  When downloaded manually, the file is 302 bytes, has the
internal structure of a JPEG file, and displays as a one [or possibly
two] pixel black dot.  A refresh tag could be used, but this has been
observed neither in the coding seen nor the activity of browsers.  At
this point I don't know what the basis of the "read duration" is.)


The central computer actually has rather a lot of information from
that URL request.  There is information about the time it was opened.  
There is purported information about the location and organization,
but this is obviously obtained from a whois lookup from the IP
address.  There is information about the browser application, and the
language used.  In the case of Windows software running under
emulation on a non-Windows system, there was enough information to
indicate that this was so.


The amount of information that DidTheyReadIt could build up is quite
staggering.  As well as simple lists of valid email addresses, they
can tie address information to browsers and other applications, and
the language of the user.  They can, of course, build maps of
connections between correspondents.  The hash seems to also be linked
to the subject line, so that even if email is not being sent through
the central computer itself a database of topics and interests can be
built.  I'm rather surprised that Rampell Software (the company behind
DidTheyReadIt) is even trying to sell their service: make it free, get
the masses on board, and they have a gold mine of marketing

Rampell is presumably well aware of the marketing possibilities.  
Each and every confirmation message from them carries at least two
marketing messages: one pushing you to buy an upgrade to the version
you have, and another promoting some other Rampell product.

The system is not prefect, of course: send a message to me and you
will probably not get acknowledgement that I read it, since my mailer
does not (automatically)  render HTML and go to the Web.  However,
prevailing upon some friends with more "standard" mailers, such as
Outlook and Eudora, the system does seem to work (at least partially)
with a wide variety of systems, including Macs, and Macs running
Outlook under PC emulation.  Cookie filters that prevent you from
going to an "outside" site might limit the susceptibility of Web based
mail systems, but otherwise these should all return the tracking URL.

The system has interesting limitations with regard to mailing lists,
and copies.  When sent to a mailing list, and even to a number of
people copied on the "To:"  and "Cc:" lines, only one hash is
generated.  Although the confirmation message from Rampell mentions
the possibility of further confirmations whenever someone subsequently
reads the message, in testing that does not appear to happen.  Each
hash appears to be good for one use, and one use only.  Sending a
message to a mailing list gets you a response from the first person
(or the first *susceptible* person) to read it.

As noted at the beginning, there has already been some interest in the
system and the privacy considerations.  There have been two mentions
of the system in the RISKS-FORUM Digest.


In the first, Lauren Weinstein gave a reasonable account of the system
and the potential problems, noting the possible solutions.  The use of
text-only email is the best solution, and blocking the Rampell server
would work as well.  Turning off image display may alleviate privacy
problems, but that does depend upon how different applications handle
that option.  Some may submit the URL to the Rampell server, and
simply not display the image.


A second posting noted that DidTheyReadIt is illegal in France, and
speculated that travellers to France might find themselves in legal
trouble if they were subscribers.  In practical terms, having the
Rampell software installed on your system could be evidence against
you.  In which case, using the modified email addresses would leave
you free and clear, so long as you didn't send any modified mail while
in France.  France might, of course, want to block Rampell's IP

A marketing consultant did an article on the errors that Rampell made
in promoting the service.  He suggested that an opt-out approach or
option would have avoided the bad press.  Unfortunately, this
demonstrates that he doesn't understand how the system or the
technology works.  As Weinstein's analysis indicated, you have to
change your software, or have some backend support, in order to
prevent detection.

It is, of course, quite possible that Rampell has only the purest of
motives in providing the service, and would never consider using the
information obtained by providing it.  I would not dare to impugn the
integrity of the company or its principles and principals.  However, I
would note that historically:

 - a certain delivery company stated that it would never sell the
database of digitized signatures collected when it started using
electronic pads--and then, some years later, did exactly that.

 - companies with very rigorous privacy policies, having collected
significant amounts of personal customer data, have gone bankrupt, and
the files have been offered for sale.

 - it has, sadly, been known to happen that evil intruders have broken
into companies and stolen personal information from computerized
files--or even planted backdoors and logging/reporting software in
their systems.

======================  (quote inserted randomly by Pegasus Mailer)
rslade at vcn.bc.ca      slade at victoria.tc.ca      rslade at sun.soci.niu.edu
Blessed is the man who, having nothing to say, abstains from
giving in words evidence of the fact.                 - George Eliot
http://victoria.tc.ca/techrev    or    http://sun.soci.niu.edu/~rslade

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