There’s a scene toward the end of the book Contact by Carl Sagan, where the protagonist Ellie Arroway finds a Message embedded deep in the digits of PI. The Message is perhaps an artifact of an extremely advanced intelligence that apparently manipulated one of the fundamental constants of the universe as a testament to their power as they wove space and time. I’m reminded of this scene by the Time.com 100 Poll where millions have voted on who are the world’s most influential people in government, science, technology and the arts. Just as Ellie found a Message embedded in PI, we find a Message embedded in the results of this poll. Looking at the first letters of each of the top 21 leading names in the poll we find the message “marblecake, also the game”. The poll announces (perhaps subtly) to the world, that the most influential are not the Obamas, Britneys or the Rick Warrens of the world, the most influential are an extremely advanced intelligence: the hackers.
At 4AM this morning I received an email inviting me to an IRC chatroom where someone would explain to me exactly how the Time.com 100 Poll was precision hacked. Naturally, I was a bit suspicious. Anyone could claim to be responsible for the hack – but I ventured onto the IRC channel (feeling a bit like a Woodward or Bernstein meeting Deep Throat in a parking garage). After talking to ‘Zombocom’ (not his real nick) for a few minutes, it was clear that Zombocom was a key player in the hack. He explained how it all works.
Zombocom told me that it all started out when the folks that hang out on the random board of 4chan (sometimes known as /b/) became aware that Time.com had enlisted moot (the founder of 4chan) as one of the candidates in the Time.com 100 poll. A little investigation showed that a poll vote could be submitted just by doing an HTTP get on the URL:
where ID is a number associated with the person being voted for (in this case 1883924 is Rain’s ID).
Soon afterward, several people crafted ‘autovoters’ that would use the simple voting URL protocol to vote for moot. These simple autovoters could be triggered by an easily embeddable ‘spam URL’. The autovoters were very flexible allowing the rating to be set for any poll candidate. For example, the URL
could be used to push 160 ratings of 1 (the worst rating) for the artist Rain to the Time.com poll.
In early stages of the poll, Time.com didn’t have any authentication or validation – the door was wide open to any client that wanted to stuff the ballot box. Soon these autovoting spam urls were sprinkled around the web voting up moot. If you were a fan of Rain, it is likely that when you visited a Rain forum, you were really voting for moot via one of these spam urls.
Soon afterward, it was discovered that the Time.com Poll didn’t even range check its parameters to ensure that the ratings fell within the 1 to 100 range. The autovoters were adapted to take advantage of this loophole, which resulted in the Time.com poll showing moot with a 300% rating, while all other candidates had ratings far below zero. Time.com apparently noticed this and intervened by eliminating millions of votes for moot and restoring the poll to a previous state (presumably) from a backup. Shortly afterward, Time.com changed the protocol to attempt to authenticate votes by requiring that a key be appended to the poll submission URL that consisted of an MD5 hash of the URL + a secret word (AKA ‘the salt’).
“Needless to say, we were enraged” says Zombocom. /b/ responded by getting organized – they created an IRC channel (#time_vote) devoted to the hack, and started to recruit. Shortly afterward, one of the members discovered that the ‘salt’, the key to authenticating requests, was poorly hidden in Time.com’s voting flash application and could be extracted. With the salt in hand – the autovoters were back online, rocking the vote.
Another challenge faced by the autovoters was that if you voted for the same person more often than once every 13 seconds, your IP would be banned from voting. However, it was noticed that you could cycle through votes for other candidates during those 13 seconds. The autovoters quickly adapted to take advantage of this loophole interleaving up-votes for moot with down-votes for the competition ensuring that no candidate received a vote more frequently than once every 13 seconds, while maximizing the voting leverage.
One of the first autovoters was MOOTHATTAN. This is a simple moot up-voter that will vote for moot about 100 times per minute. (Warning, just by visiting that site, you’ll invoke the autovoter – so if you don’t want to hack the vote, you should probably skip the visit).
Here’s a screenshot of another autovoter, a program called Mooter, developed by rdn:
Mooter is a Delphi app (windows only) that can submit about 300 votes per minute from a single IP address. It will also take advantage of any proxies and cycle through them so that the votes appear to be coming from multiple IP addresses. rdn, the author of Mooter, has used Mooter to submit 20 thousand votes in a single 15 minute period. In the last two weeks, (when rdn started keeping track) Mooter alone has submitted 10,000,000 votes (about 3.3% of the total number of poll votes).
From the screenshot you can see that Mooter is quite a sophisticated application. It allows fine grained control over who receives votes, what type of rating they get, voting frequency, the proxy cycle, along with charts and graphs showing all sorts of nifty data.
In addition to highly configurable autovoting apps, the loose collective of #time_vote maintains charts and graphs of the various candidate voting histories. Here’s a voting graph that shows the per-minute frequency of votes for boxer Manny Pacquiao.
More charts are available for browsing at (the very slow to load)
So with the charts, graphs, spam URLs and autovoters #time_vote had things well in hand. Moot would easily cruise to a victory. Although they still had some annoying competition, especially from fans of the boxer Manny Paquoia. Zombocom says that “it can take upwards of 4.5K votes a minute to keep Manny in his place”. Despite the Manny problem, the #time_vote collective had complete dominance of the poll.
The Ultimate Precision Hack
At this point Zombocom was starting to get bored and so he started fiddling with his voting scripts. Much to his surprise, he found that no matter what he did, he was never getting banned by Time.com. Zombocom suspects that his ban immunity may be because he’s running an ipv6 stack which may be confusing Time.com’s IP blocker. With no 13 second rate limit to worry about, he was able to crank out votes as fast as his computer would let him – about 5,000 votes a minute (and soon he’ll have a new server online that should give him up to 50,000 votes a minute.) With this new found power, Zombocom was able to take the hack to the next level.
Zombocom joked to one of his friends “it would be funny to troll Time.com and put us up as most influential, but since we are not explicitly on the list we’ll have to spell it out. ” His friend thought it was impossible. But two weeks later, “marblecake’ was indeed spelled out for all to see at the top of the Time.com poll.
So what is the significance of ‘marblecake’? Zombocom says: ” Marblecake was an irc channel where the “Message to Scientology” video originated. Many believe we are “dead” or only doing hugraids etc, so I thought it would also be a way of saying : we’re still around and we don’t just do only “moralfag” stuff .
To actually manipulate the poll, Zombocom wrote two perl scripts. The first one, auto.pl is pretty simple. It finds the highest rated person in the poll that is not in the desired top 21 (recall, there are 21 characters in the Message) and down-votes them (you can view this as eliminating the riff-raff). The second perl script, the_game.pl is responsible for maintaining the proper order of the top 21 by inspecting the rating of a particular person and comparing that rating to what it should be to maintain the proper order and then up-voting or down-voting as necessary to get the desired rating. With these two scripts, (less than 200 lines of perl) Zombocom can put the poll in any order he wants.
Ultimately, this hack involved lots of work and a little bit of luck. Someone figured out the voting URL protocol. A bunch of folks wrote various autovoters, which were then used by a thousand or more to stack the vote in moots favor. Others, sprinkled the spam urls throughout the forums tricking the ‘competition’ into voting for moot. When Time.com responded by trying to close the door on the hacks, the loose collective rallied and a member discovered the ‘salt’ that would re-open the poll to the autovoters. The lucky bit was when Zombocom discovered that no matter what he did, he wouldn’t get banned. This opened the door to the fine grained manipulation that led to the embedding of the Message.
At the core of the hack is the work of a dozen or so, backed by an army of a thousand who downloaded and ran the autovoters and also backed by an untold number of others that unwittingly fell prey to the spam url autovoters. So why do they do it? Why do they write code, build complex applications, publish graphs – why do they organize a team that is more effective than most startup companies? Says Zombocom: “For the lulz”.