Professor Awarded MacArthur Genius Grant For Work On Cybercrime Including Pharmaceutical Spam

Source: Bloomberg. Click to view more of the infographic.

As reported by the L.A. Times, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation announced that Stefan Savage, a professor of computer science and engineering at UC San Diego, won a 2017 MacArthur Fellows Program award, frequently called a Genius Grant. The grants are typically given to 20 to 30 individuals in any given year. The Foundation’s website says that fellowships are not a reward for accomplishments, but, “rather an investment in a person’s originality, insight, and potential.” According to the foundation’s website, Savage received his grant for, “Identifying and addressing the technological, economic, and social vulnerabilities underlying internet security challenges and cybercrime.”

It was specifically the unique, holistic approach that Savage has used while looking into some of our 21st-century technological issues that earned him the Genius Grant, including spam messages advertising cheap medicines that flood our inboxes. In one area researched, Savage and his students even joined criminal groups selling counterfeit drugs over the internet to better understand their motivations. Instead of merely deleting or relegating emails advertising cheap drugs online to a spam folder, Savage tried to understand the attacker’s point of view. How is this person making money from this enterprise? What does their supply chain look like? How can we make this economically motivated act unprofitable?

All of those questions led to multiple papers that helped to shed light on why spammers do what they do and how to best disrupt their enterprises. The Spamalytics: An Empirical Analysis of Spam Marketing Conversion study looked into trying to understand how frequently a spam email would end in a sale. The Click Trajectories: End-to-End Analysis of the Spam Value Chain study worked to figure all resources used to monetize spam email. This study found that 95% of all spam-advertised pharmaceutical, replica, and software products had their payments processed by just a handful of banks.

The MacArthur Genius Grant comes with a $625,000 award paid out over five years in quarterly installments. A detailed interview with Stefan Savage in ;login’s August 2011 issue gives more details of the research he has done into prescription drug spammers.