Wai Jiandie did not like to think about the events of June 4, 1989 in Tiananmen Square. Not that she remembered any of it first hand – she was inside her mother’s womb at the time. Her mother and father met during that glorious protest spring, or that was how her mother described it, and Wai was the product of that union. But on June 4, everything changed when the government sent in the so-called People’s Liberation Army to commit mayhem and murder. Her father was one of the victims, mowed down by a tank and leaving her mother in Beijing to fend for herself. Forced abortions were common in China, especially for single mothers carrying female babies, but somehow her mother carried Wai to term and eventually moved to Shanghai and married a mid-level bureaucrat who helped raise her as if she were his own.
Wai listened to her mother’s stories and carried a revolutionary fervor as a teenager, but quickly abandoned thoughts of politics as she entered adulthood. Instead of a political underground, she joined the Internet underground and quickly found she fit right in with the hacking culture. Instead of a failed political revolution, Wai would help lead a technology revolution. Her good looks gave her an advantage in an environment dominated by young men and as her hacking skills grew, so did her reputation.
Some of her mother’s friends, who met western journalists and others during that momentous spring of 1989, wanted to renew ties with old acquaintances. But how? With paper mail unreliable, telephones monitored and no easy way to travel, the Internet was the logical choice. And Wai was happy to lend her assistance. With help from her hacking friends, she set up an Internet café, complete with an email server.
The operation quickly became popular as people realized they could use her Internet service to buy and sell goods with the west. And more. One day in 2008, while surfing in an underground chat room, somebody using the screen name duceml approached her.
Duceml: “Looking for an email relay service. Heard u were good. Interested?”
Wongladee: “Maybe. Why u need relay?”
Duceml: “I have customers who want to sell things to lots of people.”
Wongladee: “Why do I care?”
Duceml: “I did say lots of people, right?”
Wongladee: “And I asked why I care.”
Duceml: “Lots, meaning more than 1 million.”
Wongladee: “You want to send email to 1 million ppl?”
Duceml: “Yup. For starters.”
Wongladee: “u crazy.”
Duceml: “Been called worse. Maybe this job is too big for u.”
Wongladee: “U small gonads. I handle bigger things than u all the time.”
Duceml: “LOL. You are a big talker.”
Wongladee: “I not know you duceml. Why should I relay 1 million messages for u?”
Duceml: “I’ll pay u $1 US per 10K recipients. If u can handle 1 million recipients, that’s $100 US in your pocket for one easy job. And more after that if u walk as big as u talk.”
Wongladee: “Why go all the way to China? Why not use relay on your side of ocean?”
Duceml: “NOYB. Can u handle it or do I go somewhere else?”
Wongladee: “I need to know u better first. Next time make offer worth my time.”
If this Duceml were serious, Wai knew he would contact her again. It was all part of the ritual. He questioned her tech prowess, she questioned his manhood. He offered a ridiculous payment, she told him she wasn’t interested. This American was no different than anyone else in the male dominated hacking culture she had come to understand and even enjoy.
And it wasn’t hard to figure out why Duceml wanted to use her system in China for relaying. When anyone sends an email, that email first travels from the sender’s computer to a relay server. The relay server contacts the recipient server and transmits the message. And the recipient eventually retrieves it.
Most Internet service providers offer small scale email relaying services for their own customers at no additional charge. These servers work for small scale operations but lack the capacity to handle bulk email services. Thus the rise of an entire industry of bulk email relay services.
Sometimes email is unsolicited and unwanted by the recipient, usually a sales pitch for some questionable product or service. This is called spam. Email also has a major architectural security hole: Anyone can impersonate anyone else in an email message with only trivial effort. Obviously, Duceml wanted to send spam to 1 million people, probably a sales pitch for these little blue Viagra pills Wai heard about. The spam needed to be untraceable, so instead of relaying it through his own email server, Duceml wanted to relay it through China.
Wai didn’t care about the message content or who the recipients were. Of course she would relay for her new friend, Duceml. But only if Duceml proved he was serious by offering a payment worth her time. With half in advance.
Duceml contacted Wai again a few days later. And after some more negotiations and banter, she took on his spam project and delivered it successfully. Duceml paid promptly and a partnership was born.
That initial project spawned another idea – why not automate the whole process? Surely other westerners wanted to send spam messages. Why not send them anonymously through her system? The banter was fun, but she could not banter with everyone and scale the business. So she set up a website where potential customers could sign in and prepay for bulk relaying services, no questions asked. Business exploded.
All telecommunications, and especially Internet communications, are strictly regulated in China. And Communism has a way to hamper profit unless the right Communists share in it. Wai knew that sooner or later, the government would start asking questions about her relay service and certain officials would demand bribes to look the other way, so she came up with an idea to diffuse any problems before they started. Her stepfather was helpful.
“Father – thank you. You and mother raised me well.”
“Wai, you have accomplished much in your short lifetime.”
“Perhaps I can do something to repay your kindness.”
“Repay? You have nothing to repay.”
“But father, I want to repay you. Would your superiors at your job like a list of millions of western email contacts?”
“You have such lists?”
“Yes. And more.”
“Such lists would be very helpful. My superiors would look favorably on me – and you – if I were to provide such lists.”
“If I were to share my contact lists with you, and you with your superiors, would they turn a blind eye to my Internet services?”
“I believe that can be arranged. They may want to also use your services.”
“I would be willing if they provide me the telecom capacity I need for this purpose.”
And that solved the problem. Instead of a potential adversary, the Chinese government was now her partner. Of course, this meant sharing contact information from her western customers with the Chinese government, and occasionally helping the Chinese government with phishing expeditions against certain westerners. But this was a small price to pay and she considered her government as just another customer that paid with barter.
Wai eventually made enough money to buy her mother a villa in Brazil, where she lives today in comfortable retirement with her stepfather. A small reward for her futile efforts in Tiananmen Square all those years ago. Wai continues to operate her Shanghai Internet cafe from an undisclosed location.