5 Crusading Trolls Who Pranked The Rich And Powerful
With great power comes great responsibility, but with the overwhelming power of a megacorporation, you can just string up some nets to catch your suicidal factory workers and call it a day. Naturally, such flippant behavior tends to inspire protest. But while most of those involve boring ol' "waving signs" and "drawing attention to systemic flaws," sometimes critics accomplish that goal with hilarious troll jobs instead. For example ...
A Fake Bidder Pranked A Mining Auction And Stopped The Sale Of National Land
In 2008, during the waning days of the Bush administration, the Bureau of Land Management put energy lease rights on 130,000 acres of national land in Utah up for auction. Those acres included Nine Mile Canyon and Dinosaur National Monument, which have sensitive geological and cultural significance, but also oil and mining assets. The auction was considered a sweetheart deal for mining interests before the Obama administration took charge and fulfilled their promise to terminate national land sales, on the basis that it sounds like the scheme of a lesser Captain Planet villain. But as long as the fire sale was completed in time, there were no legal obstacles standing in the way. Enter Tim DeChristopher.
DeChristopher, a 27-year-old economics student, joined the auction and promptly drove up prices by "buying" $1.7 million worth of land parcels. The fact that he wasn't twirling a mustache or lighting a cigar with a hundred-dollar bill raised suspicion. After a break was called, he was taken into custody, and eventually charged with making a false statement and violating oil and gas leasing laws -- two of the weakest crimes on the books.
DeChristopher was sentenced to two years in prison and a $10,000 fine, but his scheme worked. The auction was suspended in the confusion, then withdrawn by the Obama administration. Thanks to DeChristopher raising their prices, Nile Mile Canyon and Dinosaur National Monument remain pristine homes of such treasured natural resources as miles and dinosaurs. Plus, DeChristopher got to appear on The Late Show after he was released, which we assume made jail worth it. Well, that and the whole "standing up for your principles" thing.
TripAdvisor's Crappy Review System Was Exposed By A Fake Restaurant
According to TripAdvisor, the site you consult in a lame effort to convince yourself you're not just eating at Buffalo Wild Wings again, the "Shed at Dulwich" was considered the hottest restaurant in London. Its immense popularity made it impossible to get a table -- a problem compounded by the fact that it didn't actually exist.
Writer Oobah Butler used to have a gig writing fake TripAdvisor reviews, so when the site claimed to have a robust vetting process for all businesses and reviews, he couldn't help but laugh. And then he set to work testing that ludicrous proposition. He bought a burner phone to serve as his by-appointment-only restaurant's point of contact, set up a pretentious website advertising dishes with names like "Lust" and "Comfort," and had friends and family pen a slew of fake reviews.
And so, over a few months, the Shed rose from the #18,149 restaurant in London to #1. Would-be customers asked for tables, marketing firms and food wholesalers harangued him based solely on his dodgy internet ranking, and even food critics were bamboozled. This is all while photos of the restaurant highlighted dishes that were made with sponges, dishwasher tablets, and shaving cream.
Like this elegant custard made out of honey and bleach.
When the hoax was revealed, TripAdvisor's reaction was basically "Well, we're great at catching real fake reviews, not fake fake reviews." Butler's main trick was to make his reviews sound genuine ("My napkin was dirty, but that's okay because the food was great, four stars!") instead of just endlessly fawning. This is how a system built on the assumption that everyone will be acting in good faith can be manipulated by someone weaponizing an overwhelming volume of bad faith. Which maybe isn't a big deal if you're misled into eating mediocre Chinese food, but is more of a problem when you look at, oh, the entire internet.
A Scientist Exposed A Publishing Scam With A Paper On Midi-Chlorians
If you try to hunt down the full research paper behind one of those suspiciously amazing scientific studies that come out seemingly every week, you usually hit a paywall. It's not a great system. But the alternative can be even worse, as some journals are free to read, but charge the authors for the privilege of being published. That means a lot of good scientists can't afford to get published, while predatory journals have every incentive to publish bad science so long as they get paid.
So exactly how low are these journals' standards? Do they carefully review each study's methodology and conclusions? Do they even give every study a quick once-over? One British neuroscientist tried to find out. He put together a paper titled "Mitochondria: Structure, Function and Clinical Relevance." Except instead of mitochondria, the paper discussed midi-chlorians, the magic microbes introduced in the most beloved Star Wars film.
To write most of the paper, he took the Wikipedia article for "mitochondria," replaced the term with "midi-chlorians," then ran the whole thing through a synonym changer to fool basic plagiarism checkers. This was still very much plagiarism, which should have been spotted and led to the paper being thrown out, especially since he admitted his writing methods in the paper itself. But what he was really interested in testing wasn't plagiarism checks, but whether any journals would notice his constant and very unscientific references to Star Wars.
That's including the sentence "Without the midi-chlorians, life couldn't exist, and we'd have no knowledge of the force." He also mentions "DNRey" and "ReyTP," while claiming that Midichlorial disorders include Yoda's ataxia and Wookiee's disease. Then, in case all this was too subtle, he went on to say "Darth Plagueis was a Dark Lord of the Sith, so powerful and so wise he could use the Force to influence the midichlorians to create life. This process increases the number of reducing equivalents available to the midichlorial electron transport chain."
Four journals accepted the paper, while another offered the purported author (Dr. Lucas McGeorge) a seat on its board. While others did reject it, the stunt proved that there's a fine line between credible peer-reviewed journals and ones that only have official-sounding names and publish utter nonsense like "Internet comedy writers demonstrated to have heightened sexual prowess."
An Email Prankster Revealed Massive Insecurities In White House Communications
James Linton's high-profile phishing targets have included British politicians and banking executives, and his goal is to cause no actual harm (beyond embarrassment) while exposing vulnerabilities. In 2017, he set his sights on the White House, where any kind of vulnerability can mean bad news for all of us. He started by contacting Homeland Security advisor Tom Bossert, claiming to be Jared Kushner inviting Tom to dinner. "Thanks, Jared," replied Bossert. "Also, if you ever need it, my personal email is [redacted, but presumably firstname.lastname@example.org]." Bossert was not supposed to be sharing or even using a personal email address for such matters, for reasons that we hope are more blindingly obvious to you than they were to him.
Linton's next mark was Anthony Scaramucci, whom he contacted while pretending to be Reince Priebus. "You know what you did," Scaramucci wrote in reply, "We all do. Even today. But rest assured we were prepared. A Man would apologize." Then: "Read Shakespeare. Particularly Othello. You are right there." Encouraged by such a hilarious answer, Linton went after Scaramucci again, this time posing as Jon Huntsman using a Gmail address. When Linton-Huntsman asked whose head "should roll first," Priebus' or Steve Bannon's, Scaramucci replied "both of them," which is exactly the sort of non-commitment that made him such an excellent communications director.
The real Jon Huntsman was another duped target, when Linton wrote to him as Eric Trump, suggesting that Donald Trump do a Putinesque topless horseback photo shoot. We can only hope that Linton's prank has brought attention to the important subject of government cybersecurity, and that "but their emails" becomes the single issue driving the electorate's decision come 2020.
A Lockpicker Found Major Flaws In "High-Security" Locks
By 2004, lock breaker Marc Weber Tobias had become an expert in "bumping," a technique wherein one uses a file and hammer to easily pop the sort of locks that most people use to secure their bikes, gym lockers, and, uh, homes. Growing knowledge of the technique caused the media to scaremonger about a coming crimepocalypse, and Tobias was interviewed by dozens of local news outlets. Also interviewed was Clyde Roberson, a representative of Medeco, who saw a marketing opportunity.
Medeco is ostensibly the Rolls Royce of locks. Their clients include the Department of Defense, the White House, the United Nations, and the British Royal Family, all because their products are considered "high-security" -- which technically only means their locks take at least 10 minutes to crack. No lock is unsolvable, but by the time you've spent 10 minutes fiddling with one in the Pentagon, someone is hopefully going to notice you and arrest your fiddly ass.
Anyway, Medeco used these fears of a coming crime dystopia to advertise their locks as "bump-proof," even going so far as to start trademarking the term. This alarmed Tobias, who along with his Venezuelan colleague, uh, Tobias Bluzmanis, studied Medeco locks until they could open them in about a minute. They cracked one in eight seconds. Some lock companies improve and replace their products in response to such findings, but when they sent their results to Roberson, he began accusing the Tobiases of being liars and extortionists.
Tobias fought back by performing live demonstrations for the media and concerned security personnel, and by giving Roberson a shout-out in his guidebook on how to lay waste to Medeco's clanking contraptions. While their products would likely still keep your Xbox safe from subpar thieves, no one was thrilled that some dipwad with a few YouTube videos under his belt could quickly pop a lock in the White House. Medeco quietly dropped their trademark application and changed their product description to downplay their supposed invincibility. And while the crime spree the news predicted never came, there were no doubt a lot of frantic security evaluations throughout the land.
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