I once sent ten pounds to a woman I'd never met. I'd got an email from her, saying she was Nigerian; her husband had been killed by the militia; her daughter needed to get to Europe for an operation. After I'd phoned my bank to transfer the money, I felt guilty, because it seemed like so little. But a few weeks later, I got another message. The details were different, the email address was different, but the account number was the same.
I found out about email scams. Some of them, like the one I'd fallen for, preyed on people's guilt about their comfortable lives: 'I need your help.' 'My son only has a few months to live.' 'We're starving, and no one else cares.' Others didn't rely on charity, just self-interest: 'You could make $100 a day working from home.' 'No other program can detect the Monday2 virus.' 'If you think you've deleted your history files, you're wrong.' I felt stupid, but I wasn't the only one. I knew there were a million more idiots out there, just like me. David Chanrai knew that, too.
His lecturers say he was a hugely gifted student Ð as if I really needed to know that after spending six months studying his programs. They say they had no idea he was capable of suicide, but they were painfully aware that he had little hope of paying his tuition fees long enough to complete his project on natural language algorithms. His arthritic parents were wasting away in their flat. They begged him to carry on with his course so he could make something of himself, but all three of them knew that, if he did, his mum and dad would have to choose between food, lights, and hot water.
He must have been resigned to leaving university, working two jobs, scraping together enough for him and his parents to live on, when an email like the one I got turned up in his inbox. Of course, he'd been on the Internet since he was twelve, and he knew hoaxes when he saw them; I'm surprised he even bothered to open it.
I expect that, at first, he considered writing one himself, harvesting a few thousand addresses, sending it out, and hoping. But he must have realised that he had no facility with words, he didn't know how to intrigue you or shame you like the fraudsters did. And then the program must have occurred to him.
He collected as many of these messages he could, for source material. His housemates say he worked for days, coding past dawn, living on Irn Bru and microwave curry, and they assumed he was trying to finish his degree project. They were almost right, because he used the same routines he'd spent months refining, the same tricks for parsing phrases and building sentences.
The first time he ran it, it sent out five hundred emails, just like he wanted, every one of them different. One person fell for the spam, and deposited a fiver in his account. The next night, the program took the email that person had received, made five hundred random variants, and sent them out. Two people felt enough sympathy to donate. The next night, the program took those two emails, combined them, made five hundred random variants, and sent them out. That time, he was back down to one person.
It was astonishingly clever. With a hard-disk full of misspelled spams as its genepool, it kept on mutating, selecting, and recombining, and his bank account slowly filled up with strangers' money. He spent days at a time working on it, not leaving his room even when he could hear his housemates laughing outside, enjoying the heaviest snowfall in years. He kept working until, in late January, he heard his parents had been found dead, frozen in their sleep. He typed a suicide note, and didn't even bother to print it out before he hung himself.
We all know what happened next. His program was still hungry for source material, and, inevitably, it stumbled upon the note. It was only a few paragraphs, but somehow David Chanrai expressed his despair better than he ever could have hoped. The program took his hundred words of quiet misery and heart-rending desolation, and combined them in five hundred different ways with all the different methods it had learnt of requesting money. An unlucky teenage girl received one of the emails, dumped her meagre life savings into Chanrai's account, and took all the paracetemol in the medicine cabinet. The next night, another few people donated all they had, and killed themselves. The next night, some of the five hundred recipients were so moved they wanted others to know: they forwarded it to their friends, posted it on messageboards, put it on their weblogs. The next night, we estimate, two thousand people comitted suicide, and there were a ten thousand copies existing of the email, in its most effective evolution yet.
Soon, word was spreading that there was something dangerous on the Internet. Soon, people like me were investigating, using programs to block out more than the first few sentences of any text file. Soon, ISPs were pulling plugs.
We're only lucky that no newspaper subeditor decided to slip it as it went to press. We're lucky that no one with access to a photocopier made fliers. We're lucky that Chanrai's program didn't generate something even more effective, something even more virulent and compelling. A quarter of a million people took their lives, but we were really very lucky.