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Amazon Rejects Hacker Glitch Claims

An Amazon.com glitch reduced the sales rankings of 57,000 titles – but something isn’t right about the story of the hacker who claimed to have caused the problem

Amazon.com is disputing an account that a hacker was to blame for an error that caused thousands of books to lose their sales ranks over the weekend.

On 11 April, more than 57,000 titles apparently had their sales rankings removed, giving them lower visibility on the Amazon site. A hacker has claimed responsibility, saying the feat was accomplished using a flaw in an Amazon feature for reporing adult content. 

According to Amazon.com Director of Corporate Communications Patty Smith, the situation was due to a cataloging error. Smith disputed a supposed confession posted on a LiveJournal discussion group on 13 April, in which a hacker identified as “Weev” claimed he had exploited an Amazon.com feature for reporting inappropriate content.

“The thing about the adult reporting function of Amazon was that it was vulnerable to something called “Cross-site request forgery,'” Weev wrote. “This means if I referred someone to the URL of the successful complaint, it would register as a complaint if they were logged in.

“I know some people who run some extremely high traffic (Alexa top 1000) Websites. I show them my idea, and we all agree that it is pretty funny,” he continued. “They put an invisible iframe in their Websites to refer people to the complaint URLs, which caused huge numbers of visitors to report gay and lesbian items as inappropriate without their knowledge.”

However, contrary to statements in Weev’s blog entry and some reports, the situation was not limited to gay-themed books.

“It has been misreported that the issue was limited to Gay & Lesbian themed titles—in fact, it impacted 57,310 books in a number of broad categories such as Health, Mind & Body, Reproductive & Sexual Medicine, and Erotica,” Smith said in a statement. “This problem impacted books not just in the United States but globally. It affected not just sales rank but also had the effect of removing the books from Amazon’s main product search.”

The situation has drawn the ire of some gay and lesbian rights groups concerned that gay-themed books were being censored. In addition, some authors have claimed in press reports that they received e-mails from Amazon.com stating that their books had been placed in an unranked Adult category and excluded from some searches.

“Many books have now been fixed and we’re in the process of fixing the remainder as quickly as possible, and we intend to implement new measures to make this kind of accident less likely to occur in the future,” Smith said.