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COMPUTING SCIENCE

Spam, Spam, Spam, Lovely Spam

Brian Hayes

I used to feel forlorn whenever I checked my e-mail and found nothing waiting for me. Not much risk of that these days. There's always someone who wants to help me lose 32 pounds, or clean up my tarnished credit report, or get me that college degree I skipped in my reckless youth. Absolute strangers send me tips on the stock market and ideas for starting a new business that I could run with a laptop computer from my new condo in Hawaii. Then there are the ill-considered schemes to share the ill-gotten gains of African dictators, as well as a voluminous and varied stream of messages that are best described as indecent proposals.

Figure 1. Number of spam attacks has quadrupled . . .Click to Enlarge Image

When the very first of these missives began appearing in my mailbox, some years ago, they were mildly intriguing, like messages in bottles washed up on the beach. I had to wonder—in the millisecond before I hit the delete button—who had sent them and from where and why. Most of all I wondered for whom they were meant, since they were clearly of no use or interest to me. By now, of course, the sense of mystery is long gone. The occasional message in a bottle has become a daily tide of wrack and flotsam; it's as if whole cargoes are being dumped overboard to litter our shores; an unstoppable oil slick of oleaginous marketing sludge slops into every e-mail inbox around the world, wave after wave and day after day.

The very efficiency and convenience of electronic communication gets some of the blame for this flood of unwanted and thoroughly unloved junk e-mail. By dramatically reducing costs, the Internet makes it economically feasible to blanket the globe with boring sales-pitch messages, even if only the tiniest percentage of the recipients respond. But if technology created this problem, maybe it can also contribute to the solution. Or are social and legal remedies more promising?





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