Damn Spam: The losing war on junk e-mail
In the spring of 1978, an energetic marketing man named Gary Thuerk wanted to let people in the technology world know that his company, the Digital Equipment Corporation, was about to introduce a powerful new computer system. DEC operated out of an old wool mill in Maynard, Massachusetts, and was well known on the East Coast, but Thuerk hoped to reach the technological community in California as well. He decided that the best way to do it was through the network of government and university computers then known as the Arpanet. Only a few thousand people used it regularly, but their names were conveniently printed in a single directory. After selecting six hundred West Coast addresses, Thuerk realized that he would never have time to call each one of them, or even to send out hundreds of individual messages. Then another idea occurred to him: what if he simply used the network to dispatch a single e-mail to all of them? “We invite you to come see the 2020 and hear about the DECSystem-20 family,’’ the message read. As historic lines go, it didn’t have quite the ring of “One small step for a man,” yet Gary Thuerk’s impact cannot be disputed. When he pushed the send button, he became the father of spam.
Spam’s growth has been metastatic, both in raw numbers and as a percentage of all mail. In 2001, spam accounted for about five per cent of the traffic on the Internet; by 2004, that figure had risen to more than seventy per cent. This year, in some regions, it has edged above ninety per cent—more than a hundred billion unsolicited messages clogging the arterial passages of the world’s computer networks every day. The flow of spam is often seasonal. It slows in the spring, and then, in the month that technology specialists call “black September”—when hundreds of thousands of students return to college, many armed with new computers and access to fast Internet connections—the levels rise sharply.
The success rate of such anti-spam efforts usually exceeds ninety-five per cent, but spam behaves on the Internet in much the same way that viruses do when they infect humans: it might take a million of them to attack an immune system before one gets through, but one is enough. The same is true of e-mail. The more spam that is blocked, the greater the volume spammers will need to send in order to make money. “If you used to have to send fifty thousand pieces of spam to get a response, now you have to send a million,’’ John Scarrow, the general manager of anti-spam technologies at Microsoft, told me. (Spammers usually need to send a million e-mails to get fifteen positive responses; for the average direct-mail campaign, the response rate is three thousand per million.) “Spammers just shrug it off and send a million.” That amount of e-mail can overwhelm servers and waste time, particularly for those who check their mail several times a day. (It takes at least five seconds to recognize and delete an e-mail. If a billion spam messages elude detection every day—which means that ninety-nine per cent do not—that adds up to a hundred and fifty-nine years of collective time lost hitting the delete button every day.) Scarrow told me that of the four billion e-mails processed by Hotmail every day, they deliver only six hundred million. The rest are spam.
Comments: I was with DEC in 1978 when the 2020 was announced. On my desktop was a yellow pad of paper, a pen, and a phone. Communication was through my secretary who would telex communications back to the home office. In my cubical, yellow telexes festooned my walls (a primitive inbox!). Image from McAfee