After seven years of developing and supporting the WangGuard/SplogHunter service, José Conti has shut down the server permanently due to the stress and trauma associated with maintaining it. Conti is a WordPress plugin developer and consultant, and a member of the WordPress España translation team. His WangGuard plugin identifies and blocks sploggers, unwanted users, and untrusted users on WordPress, Multisite, BuddyPress, bbPress, and WooCommerce sites. It is currently active on more than 10,000 sites.
Speculation about why the service shut down was running rampant after Conti had collected donations via an Indiegogo campaign in October 2016 to fund support and server costs. Since that time SiteGround stepped in to sponsor WangGuard, eliminating the server costs. The only costs that remained were Conti’s time and effort that he put into supporting the plugin.
“My purpose with WangGuard was never money,” Conti said in his post explaining the reason for the shut-down. “I could have made WangGuard a paid plugin at anytime, and actually had a plan for that for years. But I didn’t do it because there is something inside me that would never let that happen. It was never, I repeat, never my plan to get rich with WangGuard, and I assure you that I could have done it easily: simply charging each of my users 24€/year, would have meant an income of more than 2 million euros per year. I just had to distribute a version of WangGuard I had collecting dust, with a checkbox on WangGuard’s server administration options but I never got it done. No matter the other reasons, which only people very close to me know: I simply didn’t want to, nor did I want to be a millionaire.”
Mafia Death Threats and Trauma from Exposure to the Dark Web: The High Cost of WangGuard’s 99.9% Accurate Detection of Splogs
WangGuard has long been known for its nearly perfect detection of registration spam. Not only did it completely block unwanted users, it also removed them from the database. The plugin was unrivaled in both accuracy and price – all users got everything the service offered for free. In order for WangGuard to provide its 99.90% accuracy, Conti bolstered the algorithm with manual curation and reviews.
“WangGuard worked in two different ways: as an algorithm that I had been refining for seven years, and which was getting better as the sploggers evolved, so that it was always one step ahead of them, and also as human curation, in which I reviewed many factors, among them sites of sploggers to see if their content could improve the algorithm and make sure that it worked correctly both when it was blocking or not blocking a site,” Conti said. “The great secret of WangGuard was this second part. Without it WangGuard would not ever have become what it was.”
Because of how effective WangGuard was at stopping unwanted users, Conti said for four years he received “almost daily death threats from mafias for making them lose millions of dollars.”
Through the process of manually curating splogger sites, Conti caught a glimpse of the some of the darkest places on the web, which he said had a damaging psychological impact on him.
“For seven years, I have visited places where I saw pederasty, pictures, and videos of murders (by razor blades, by gutting live people, by beheadings, dismemberments, to name a few), real videos of rape of all kinds (children, women, boys), photos of accidents in which people were totally disfigured, bizarre actions that I did not even know existed, and a very long ‘and so on,’ which I do not want to expand on,” Conti said.
The effects of viewing these types of websites every day took their toll and Conti decided to close the splog hunter service.
“Finally, a few months ago, I broke down,” Conti said. “I disappeared from everywhere and fell into a depression. The seven years of working at WangGuard finally took a toll on me. I had nightmares because of all the macabre deaths I had seen, an obsession with protecting my children from pederasty, OCD, depression, and many other symptoms. It took me about 6 months to recover (and honestly, I may be deceiving myself, since I do not think I completely recovered my life).”
I asked Conti if clicking through to the websites was necessary for maintaining the service. He explained that while WangGuard blocked emails, domains, IPs, and ISPs, without his manual curation of visiting the domains and clicking the links, users could get a lot of “sleepers” – registered and active accounts that remain silent until one day with a 0day vulnerability or a bug fix, they attack thousands of websites. The sleepers also wait to perform actions like create millions of sites on thousands of WordPress multisite installations in order to create a lot of bad content/links.
“Visiting many domains, I was able to minimize this problem,” Conti said. “The way I worked not only fixed the current spam / splog problem, but the wizard and database also fixed any future problems with sleepers.”
Another reason he visited the domains was to figure out what he needed to block, whether it was an email or a domain. The domain could be a spam domain or possibly a free email service.
“By visiting a website, I could detect whether it was a phishing website or a site camouflaged as an email service in order to try to cheat WangGuard,” he said. “I saw a lot of ‘techniques’ for trying to cheat WangGuard at Black Hat specialized forums. I had been subscribed to many spam/sploggers forums for investigation. Every time that a user described a real technique for cheating WangGuard, it was fixed immediately.”
If you’re still using the WangGuard plugin, it may continue to work but not nearly as well as in the past. Conti said that some parts of the code work without the API, but the most important parts require the WangGuard/SplogHunter server. The plugin is open source, so anyone can fork it. An English translation of his original post is available on the WordPress.org plugin forums.