“Subject: Urgent Warning”

Back in December I got a desperate email from this person. A woman who said her Instagram had been hacked and since she found my contact info in the app she mailed me and asked for help. I of course replied and said that I have nothing to do with her being hacked but I also have nothing to do with Instagram other than that they use software I’ve written.

Today she writes back. Clearly not convinced I told the truth before, and now she strikes back with more “evidence” of my wrongdoings.

Dear Daniel,

I had emailed you a couple months ago about my “screen dumps” aka screenshots and asked for your help with restoring my Instagram account since it had been hacked, my photos changed, and your name was included in the coding. You claimed to have no involvement whatsoever in developing a third party app for Instagram and could not help me salvage my original Instagram photos, pre-hacked, despite Instagram serving as my Photography portfolio and my career is a Photographer.

Since you weren’t aware that your name was attached to Instagram related hacking code, I thought you might want to know, in case you weren’t already aware, that your name is also included in Spotify terms and conditions. I came across this information using my Spotify which has also been hacked into and would love your help hacking out of Spotify. Also, I have yet to figure out how to unhack the hackers from my Instagram so if you change your mind and want to restore my Instagram to its original form as well as help me secure my account from future privacy breaches, I’d be extremely grateful. As you know, changing my passwords did nothing to resolve the problem. Please keep in mind that Facebook owns Instagram and these are big companies that you likely don’t want to have a trail of evidence that you are a part of an Instagram and Spotify hacking ring. Also, Spotify is a major partner of Spotify so you are likely familiar with the coding for all of these illegally developed third party apps. I’d be grateful for your help fixing this error immediately.

Thank you,

[name redacted]

P.S. Please see attached screen dump for a screen shot of your contact info included in Spotify (or what more likely seems to be a hacked Spotify developed illegally by a third party).

Spotify credits screenshot

Here’s the Instagram screenshot she sent me in a previous email:

Instagram credits screenshot

I’ve tried to respond with calm and clear reasonable logic and technical details on why she’s seeing my name there. That clearly failed. What do I try next?

103 thoughts on ““Subject: Urgent Warning””

  1. Be gentle (and careful). I’ve had similar emails over the years from people whom I’m certain in retrospect were literally schizophrenic. No amount of calm response was able to convince them that I wasn’t hacking their system, I didn’t know who was hacking their system, and that I couldn’t help them un-hack their system without a contract in place. On one hand, it’s annoying because you’re being accused of something you clearly have no part in – if it’s real at all. On the other, think how terrible it would be to be the scared person, confused and feeling alone, reaching out for help.

    1. Good advice.

      Schizophrenia isn’t the “dual personality” thing. It’s paranoia to the extreme. Every possible rational explanation is, in itself, another trap.

      That’s not to say that this person is indeed suffering from psychosis, but it’s one plausible explanation.

      Document everything you do. Keep a meticulous paper and electronic trail, so that you can account for everything you’ve done.

  2. Friend, just tell her how the software licensing works… Because you don’t have any responsibility on this.

  3. Imagine you attend a feast in a great banquet hall. The organizers of the event have selected the finest chefs in the land to prepare the finest recipes. (In order that credit is given where credit is due, the creators of the recipes are listed on the back of the menu.)

    The dinner is a delight, and you have never eaten such varied and delicious food. An exquisite chocolate cake leaves a lasting impression on your palate.

    However, when preparing to leave, you discover that a dastardly thief has swiped your prized scarf from the coat check.

    I am sorry you lost your scarf, and that you want help catching the thief who took it. However, I am a pastry chef, the author of the book containing the chocolate cake recipe.

  4. I’d try a physical analogy which she might be able to relate to.

    “Imaging you suddenly had a problem with your Toyota. The engine seized and you are desperately trying to get someone on the phone to get it fixed. While looking things over, you noticed a phone number on one of the tires, which you called asking for help, insisting that the phone number obviously belongs to a Toyota employee whom should be able to help you out.

    Look, the company who manufactured that tire has absolutely nothing to do with Toyota, and they certainly won’t be of any help in getting your engine repaired. You are barking up the wrong tree.”

  5. I’d be tempted to tell her that you built a piece of software that many companies use. Much like John Dunlop invented the rubber tier used by all car manufacturers today.

    Much like John Dunlop has nothing to do with people getting into accidents in her neighborhood, you have nothing to do with Instagram or Spotify or Facebook.

  6. Use analogy.

    Let’s say you designed an electric drill and sold the design to Bosch. Your name is stated in the Bosch’ website as the designer of the drill.

    Someone then bought the electric drill, and use it to break into the woman’s house, and left the drill there.

    She then browsed the drill and found your name. Can she blame you for the break in?

  7. She has no understanding of how either hacking or programming works, but is convinced you have some responsibility or power in her situation. That is a no-win situation for you, as far as I can tell. She is losing control of her online life and the last thing she will be interested in is a course on the process of software development; her need is to reach someone who can make it stop.

    The most you could do for her is point her to someone who has that power, which you probably can’t. You could try to convey this fact to her, but she lacks the capacity to assess whether you are being truthful. In absence of her needs being met in any other way, on the off chance (which she cannot assess) that you could meet her needs if you only wanted, she basically has to argue with you.

    So (unless you can point her to someone) your only real course of action is to ignore her (maybe preceded by a “Sorry. I can’t help you.” – although that will probably just strengthen her suspicion that you actually can). Unsatisfying as that is.

  8. Since it’s too late to ignore, you’d probably be best to write a firm but simple response, wish them well, and refuse to respond further. Or, just don’t respond. Nothing good will come from responding.

  9. Some senarios
    1) she don’t know how licenses works
    2) she don’t know it’s the one with the evil
    Intent is the bad guy. (Hence weapons don’t kill, but people do)
    3) she is a lonatic
    4) she is an attorney
    5) she want you to hack some other account

    I would tell her that
    since it’s an open software with a correct licensing and disclaimer of usage it is not your responsibility to fix miss use of the software.
    Even if it was your responsibility you would not have the explicit technical knowledge to hack Instagram or Spotify. Even if you would have the technical skill you will not hack Spotify or Instagram since it is a crime. Even if you would do an exception (even tough you won’t regarding 1,2,3 above) still how can you be sure she is not just trying you to hack some other persons accounts.

    So advise her to contact Instagram and Spotify to reclaim her account. And that you have asked other experts on advice to help her in the best possible way with high moral and sound ethical values within the legal frameworks.

    And then end with “So even if I wanted to I can’t help you more than I allready have done”

  10. I would try to help her understand with one or two more emails. If she still doesn’t get it I would gently end the communication. If you begin to teach her licensing and stuff she will be more confused.

    There is a good book called “Talking to Crazy: How to Deal with the Irrational and Impossible People in Your Life” by Mark Goulston. This book has some ideas how to deal with similar situations. In the beginning the author says something like “Don’t try to deal with mentally ill people yourself, leave that to professionals.” I’d like to think she doesn’t have mental issues. Most likely she just doesn’t understand what is going on and she is panicking.

  11. I didn’t understand the analogies myself… Maybe Grant’s made the most sense. However, maybe you could just explain your role in Instagram in a letter. I made a rough draft in a few minutes (consider it under public domain or whatever you need if you want to use it):


  12. How about simply renaming curl to zurl so that you end up at the very bottom of the list and hand over the case to the next dependency in alphabetical order?

  13. Hi

    Some time ago I wrote a useful piece of software called libcurl. Anyone can use it in their app, they just have to show a copy of the license somewhere – this is what you’ve seen in Instagram and Spotify. It’s kind of like how lots of companies make tools and they all use the Philips head screw design under license. libcurl won’t have anything to do with your being hacked; the support teams from either company will be able to verify this for you.

    I am sympathetic of your problems and do hope you can get them resolved, although I can’t offer you much advice except that whoever got into your stuff probably either guessed your password directly, or got access to your email and got the passwords changed, so you ought to change the passwords in all those places and anywhere else you used the same one(s).

    I appreciate that I am just some guy and you’ve no particular reason to believe what I tell you. If you have someone you know and trust who has IT knowledge, seek help from them. Or if you have an IT department at work, see if someone there can spare you some time to figure it out.

  14. sounds a bit like the Tuttle episode, where a CentOS developer was in your position; http://www.theregister.co.uk/2006/03/24/tuttle_centos/

    TBH, the harsher responses are valid for that Tuttle City moron, but this lady… a bit of kindness may be good.

    I especially liked the analogies (car tire, etc.); may help her at least understand. If she still doesn’t, you may need to start blocking her or something.

  15. You’ve responded clearly and articulated the position, it is not your issue that she doesn’t understand or is incapable of understanding.

    She may or may not be mentally ill, as has been suggested, but I think the single best response you can have at this point is to simply not respond any more.

    Further dialogue is unlikely to change her mind or to elicit anything more than a frustrating dialogue which won’t help either of you. In the sad case that she is mentally ill, there is nothing you can do, reason won’t work.

    People in our world like to explain, to educate, in this case though it will simply waste your time and hers.

  16. I work at Facebook. Let me try and find somebody who can help this person.

    Sorry you have to deal with this kind of stuff 🙁

  17. Use analogies. Explain him/her that looking for help from you is like asking for refund from the car radio designer after a car accident.

  18. Poor woman… But she’ll learn from now on to keep a copy of everything in her computer.
    For those who said she’s ill, I seriously doubt she is. She’s just despaired, scared and ignorant. But that doesn’t mean she doesn’t deserve a helping hand.
    Hope someone can sort this out for her.

  19. I require 50K$ to post a solution to this: Also, I grant no guarantee that instagram will update with the patched software. (changes name and Email in “new patch”)

  20. Yeah its funny.

    But didn’t you create this mess yourself when you decided to work professionally using a domain called haxx. I find that almost equally funny.

  21. Don’t feel bad. My first job in technology was working the front lines for an early dialup ISP. We used to have a guy come in to our offices claiming he had invented the Internet and was going to sue us and AOL. He would ramble on for quite a while and we would have to gently coerce him out the door. We were always a bit afraid of him because there were occasional implied threats of violence. He was one of those very, very odd people that appear deep down to be unable to function in regular society. There’s always going to be people like this – the “technology is magic” crowd who simply cannot comprehend the massive moving parts that are behind the curtain. I suppose unless they become belligerent and try to sue probably best to simply ignore.

  22. It’s not just a misleading domain name.

    You may want to rethink your cute comment on the haxx.se home page “Haxx is a team of four skilled developers and hackers”.

    It is not surprising for someone who has gone there and doesn’t understand other use of the term “hacker” might think you’re boasting about being destructive hackers.

  23. The terminology this person uses in their email shows they are much more clued up on computers and security than what you would expect a photographer would be.

    Personally I think it is a wind up.

  24. Don’t lose your sleep over this, just ignore it. Either this person is terribly misinformed, and teaching him/her about what curl is may take months, or said person is mentally ill (sounds like paranoia) and no amount of explanation will do any good (I’ve been in a similar situation once).

    Contact the authorities should the emails become threatening.

    My 2¢

  25. I think she’s just desperate about her situation and she’s looking for someone to go after and blame about her situation. Its good that you reported the case on Instagram to clear your name.

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