While researching an unrelated story on an Alaska state legislator, a News Growl journalist discovered over 1,000 outbound links to diet scam, gambling and pornography websites on two official websites belonging to the Alaska legislature, akleg.gov and legis.state.ak.us.

Why is the Alaska Legislature promoting the discredited HGC diet?

News Growl editor in chief Patricia McConnell was researching an article this morning on scandal-plagued Alaska legislator Justin Parish, who announced he would not run for re-election yesterday following a sexual harassment allegation.

akleg.gov image search
Results from a Google Image search using the term “site:akleg.gov” Note HGC images towards the bottom

As part of routine research, McConnell did a Google Image search of the official Alaska Legislature website, akleg.gov, using the command “site:akleg.gov.” The search results included several pictures typical of other state legislature websites, but also included several images of fitness models surrounded by syringes. McConnell instantly suspected something was wrong.

“Since we started News Growl in January I have looked at dozens of official state legislature websites,” McConnell explained. “I’ve never seen anything like this before. I did not know exactly what it meant, but I knew it was not normal.”

Although they came up on a search of akleg.gov, the images were hosted on a website promoting a diet using injections of a pregnancy hormone called “human chorionic gonadotropin” (HGC). This diet has been thoroughly discredited by the medical community and is considered dangerous to human health.

According to Katherine Zeratsky R.N. writing on the Mayo Clinic website:

“HCG is not approved for over-the-counter use, nor has it been proved to work for weight loss… Companies that sell over-the-counter HCG weight-loss products are breaking the law. [A] serious concern is the risk of blood clots forming and blocking blood vessels (thromboembolism).”

akleg.gov image search results
Google Image search results for “site:akleg.gov/cgi-bin/offsite.cgi”
Images from Republcan and Democratic Party websites, plus HGC diet scam sites

A few searches later, and McConnell found that the links to the HCG diet website were “redirect links,” which immediately sent the reader to a new website. The redirect links for the images she found all began “akleg.gov/cgi-bin/offsite.cgi.” The “cgi” part of this URL stands for Community Gateway Interface, and is an uncommon but not unheard of way of linking to outside content from other websites.

This same CGI suffix is used by several legitimate websites connected to the workings of the Alaska legislature, including alaskahouserepublicans.org, alaskasenate.org, and aksenatedems.com. A second image search using the command “site:akleg.gov/cgi-bin/offsite.cgi” returned images from all of the legitimate sites, mixed in with images from the HCG diet website.

Assuming the Alaska Legislature is not purposely supporting illegal diet scams, News Growl has concluded that akleg.gov has been hacked.

Over 1,000 porn sites linked from akleg.gov

akleg.gov site link search
Google web search using th term “site:akleg.gov/cig-bin/outside.cgi”
Top results appear to be all pornographic content sites

Unfortunately for the Alaska Legislature, the HCG diet scam website is only the tip of the iceberg. A Google search for all webpages that include the CGI suffix (“site:akleg.gov/cgi-bin/offsite.cgi”) turns up roughly 1,140 examples of sites linking out from akleg.gov, and almost all of them are pornography websites.

News Growl journalists have been very careful not to click on any of these pornography links. In fact, just the names of the sites alone are very disturbing.

 

The benefits of hacking akleg.gov

According to one search engine optimization (SEO) expert News Growl spoke to (who wishes to remain anonymous), these redirected links appear to be the work of “black hat” SEO practitioners.

Black Hat SEO is the use of dishonest and deceptive tactics to trick Google, Bing, and other search engines into ranking a site higher in search results than it would otherwise appear. For search engines, one of the main indicators of a site’s value to readers is the links it has from other sites. Any link from a site ending in “.gov” is especially prized by black hat SEO operators as a link from an official government website is a strong indication of trust and legitimacy.

While it is unlikely many visitors to akleg.gov would have found the unwanted outbound links by accident, the links would be visible to Google and Bing and would have resulted in higher ranked search results and more visitor traffic for the illegal diet and pornography websites.

DivaQQOur expert could not determine how long these links have been in place, but he suggested the links may have been in place for months and years.

Additional rogue links appear to be emanating from another website address controlled by the Alaska Legislature: legis.state.ak.us. A Google Image search using the term “site:w3.legis.state.ak.us” brings up linked content from an Asian online casino called “Diva QQ,” and several Russian language websites including a website promoting holidays for Russians in Israel.

What next for the Alaska Legislature?

The good news for the Alaska Legislature is once they become aware of the problem, getting rid of the links is achievable with the right technical support.

The bad news for the Alaska Legislature is that for an unknown amount of time they have been (apparently unknowingly) providing valuable marketing support to over a thousand morally questionable websites, including some involved in possibly illegal activity.

According to the SEO expert we spoke to, the Alaska Legislature can prevent unauthorized use of its websites in future with appropriate monitoring and oversight of its online assets.

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