WASHINGTON — A little-known Stars and Stripes message board program was used by outside spammers to post hundreds of links to shady business sites and pornographic pictures, some of them possibly illegal, newspaper officials acknowledged this week.

The site, hosted on a secondary server and not part of the newspaper’s website, was believed to be inactive but did feature rotating advertisements and links to other Stars and Stripes pages. It was shut down by the newspaper's website administrators last week.

Publisher Max Lederer said he does not believe that any foul play was involved; instead, it was simply an oversight in monitoring what was thought to be an inactive test page.

The prototype message board page was loaded more than 32,000 times, mostly over the last six months, according to Drew Schneider, director of Interactive Media for the newspaper. However, he believes the vast majority of those views were from quick-moving spambots, not from human visitors.

“Unfortunately, that’s not uncommon,” he said. “The nature of these bots is to look for these kind of open systems and post to it. Usually that gets flagged by an administrator, but in this case no one was monitoring the forum.”

Spammers left messages touting links to cheap sexual performance drugs, nude celebrities, foreign language scam sites and, in at least one instance, child pornography. Schneider said most of the links were inactive, but at least some did redirect users to objectionable websites.

Lederer said administrators have found no evidence of illegal activity on the abandoned forum site, but they are continuing to look into the matter and will contact appropriate authorities if any potentially illegal material is found.

Additionally, newspaper advertising officials are reviewing which online ads might have been displayed alongside the objectionable links. At most, Schneider said, about $200 worth of advertisements could have been displayed on the abandoned forum.

But he said the number is likely much lower, possibly even nothing, since advertisers are not charged for page loads by automated bots, and since bulk rates negotiated with advertisers include a few hundred extra page views to cover issues like traffic spikes.

The forum was built with open source software more than 18 months ago, as part of testing for a new online comments system. Former Stars and Stripes web developer Eric Pugh said that plan was abandoned when other options became available, and it became a forgotten project.

Schneider said the forum was rediscovered when the volume of automated traffic disrupted other activities on the automated server. Pugh said when he left the newspaper earlier this year, the test site was not causing any problems and he believed it was inaccessible to outside users.

As a result of the incident, Lederer said he has redirected web staff not to test any projects on live servers, and to ensure that incomplete projects are not accessible to the public.

“We shouldn’t be testing these things in a live (online) atmosphere,” he said. “I’m not concerned that any real readers were viewing this site. But we are concerned that someone was accessing (programs) that we did not want open to the public.”


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