Tuesday, March 25, 2008

What Happened With the History List?

SCV In the Know is a place where we like to give information that helps the many SCV members, officers and volunteers. We also like to use it to brag on things that our members have accomplished, either with full stories or with links to stories on the blog (www.sonsofconfederateveterans.blogspot.com). We like to emphasize things that are going right, since there is so much negative in our world. This time, though, we need to address an internal matter of the SCV that has not functioned as planned.

The SCV History list has been down for a long time, and that’s no secret. Last year we put out a call for volunteers to moderate the list (this is a topic-limited, moderator pre-approved list, dealing with Confederate history subjects). A number of fine volunteers stepped forward. Over the next few months we went through a selection process to designate a moderator, and several times circumstances arose that the person selected wasn’t able to take the task as he had hoped to. So, the selection process would begin anew each time. It was thought that we were finally ready to go, and Commander-in-Chief Sullivan wrote about SCV communications, including the History List, in the latest Confederate Veteran, and sure enough there were a good number who used the website to sign up for the History List after reading that column. Then things got very strange.

The History List was activated by someone or something unknown, before it was ready to have the switch turned on, and hundreds of members who had not subscribed began receiving messages. It’s true that there were a number of members who signed up after seeing the Commander-in-Chief’s column, but that was a couple of dozen, not hundreds. The immediate result was people placing posts saying that they hadn’t signed up and requesting to be removed (which cannot be done through the list itself, but only by going to the website), and others – not aware of what had happened – began responding that of course they had signed up, otherwise they wouldn’t be receiving messages. Without the moderator in place, these back-and-forth “remove me” messages escalated, just causing even more to send requests to be removed.

A quick investigation revealed what had happened (though not precisely how), and the Commander-in-Chief ordered the plug pulled on the list until it could be resolved. Certainly a matter of curiosity was whether this was a technical glitch, or intentional mischief. An ultimate answer may not ever be known with complete certainty, but there are a few things we do know: the history list is operated by software known as Mailman, a fairly sophisticated list management program. While there were some security issues that could result in attacks against a list in versions of Mailman prior to version 2.0, the SCV operates version 2.1.9.cp2 and there are no known major security issues in the current version. There did appear to be a pattern with those who had been added to the list without signing up in that they were members whose email addresses had been on file with the SCV for a long time; people who had signed up recently for SCV News, for example, were not getting the unwanted History List messages. Also, SCV News is operated completely separate from the History List; it doesn’t even use Mailman software (and current SCV databases were not compromised in this incident). While all evidence is only circumstantial, the evidence points to someone working off an old list of emails and member numbers and somehow gaining access to the mailman subscriptions password (which is normally only used by personnel at general headquarters). While there is a temptation to entertain conspiracy theories, instead the focus will remain on what is being done to rectify things.

First, the password was changed and strengthened. Also, Webmaster Dr. Sandy Keathley is developing a verification process for the list subscription forms, to prevent possible form spamming (a way to sign up people without their knowledge). The entire History List subscriber list has been scrapped; there isn’t an easy way to tell who meant to subscribe and who didn’t. Members who are known for certain to have been on the list will be added to the new one; however, most members will need to resubscribe. Finally, the list will go live again later this week with Allen Sullivant serving as moderator (list administrator in Mailman parlance). If you aren’t receiving messages from the History List by this weekend and you subscribed previously, that would be your sign that you’ll need to subscribe again at http://www.scv.org/maillistSubscription.php

To those who would like to see the SCV have an active, productive History List, I apologize that it has taken so long to get it going, and that it has gone through such difficulties. To those who never wanted the messages with which they were inundated, I apologize for the inconvenience you experienced. And to those gentlemen who offered their services to serve as moderator, thank you for being willing to serve.

Don Shelton

Chief of Staff, SCV