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Spam, Spam, Spam, Lovely Spam

Brian Hayes

The Spam on My Plate

In the case of e-mail, the magnitude of the spam crisis is hard to pin down, but there is certainly a widespread perception that the amount has mushroomed in the past year or two. Lately the problem has been getting frequent attention in both the popular and the technical press, and there have been several recent conferences and workshops to explore remedies. The Internet Engineering Task Force has just formed an Anti-Spam Research Group. At the governmental level, the Federal Trade Commission has taken an interest (although not, as yet, much action). About half the states have enacted laws on spam; federal legislation is the subject of intense lobbying efforts on both sides. Elsewhere, the European parliament has adopted a stern policy, but their success in enforcing it is not yet known.

The statistics on e-mail spam that appear in news reports come mainly from companies that sell products and services for combatting spam. One of these vendors, Brightmail, Inc., says that spam made up 8 percent of all e-mail traffic in 2001 but had grown to 36 percent by the middle of 2002 and was over 40 percent by the end of last year. Postini, Inc., another company providing anti-spam services, reports that the proportion of spam in the mail they monitor climbed from 20 percent in January 2002 to 60 percent by December. I have no reason to doubt the accuracy of these figures, but it is only fair to point out that the companies' own interest lies in emphasizing the severity of the crisis.

A few consulting firms and foundations have also surveyed the volume of spam. Jupiter Research estimates that the average e-mail user gets about 2,200 spams a year, and the Gartner Group says that corporate e-mail is 25 to 35 percent spam. But a discordant note comes from the Pew Internet & American Life Project, which surveyed 2,500 Internet users, asking only about e-mail they receive at work. Half said they get no spam at all in their workplace accounts, and 71 percent reported no more than "a little."

Figure 2. Daily tally of spam received . . .Click to Enlarge Image

Out of curiosity, I have been keeping track of spam in my own in-box for the past few months. From November 2002 through March 2003 I received 1,571 items that I would unequivocally classify as spam; another 287 are doubtful cases. The total number of messages received in the period was 6,028. Even giving the benefit of the doubt to all the doubtful ones, this tally suggests that I'm getting more than my fair share of spam when measured in absolute numbers; at this rate, I can expect almost 3,800 spams a year rather than the 2,200 predicted by Jupiter Research. Yet the proportion of spam in my mail is only 26 percent, less than the averages reported by Brightmail and Postini, and near the low end of the Gartner estimate. (Obviously, percentage measurements are sensitive to the amount of both spam and nonspam mail.)

Spammers are said to harvest most of their addresses on the World Wide Web. My address has been posted on the American Scientist Web site for eight years, which may have something to do with my popularity among the spammers. But there's more to the story. Another of my e-mail accounts has never been published on the Web or anywhere else, yet it attracted more than 70 spams.

Classifying my mail as spam or nonspam took more thought than I expected. Of course there are many echt spams that I could recognize in an instant, without glancing beyond the subject line: "Eat pizza, watch TV ... and lose 22 pounds," "Absolutely FREE - Receive $610.00!!!" I have a hard time believing that anyone would actually want to receive some of these messages. The worst of them can only be understood as "trolls," deliberately meant to be annoying, and thereby to provoke the recipient into responding—thus verifying that the e-mail address is valid.

Alongside these blackest of spams, however, there are also shades of gray—mail that I don't want and that I didn't ask for (or at least I don't remember asking for it) but that might conceivably interest someone else and that comes from a source I know. For example, when a certain scientific society of which I'm a member (not Sigma Xi!) sends me seven invitations to register for its annual meeting, is that spam? What about a catalogue merchant from whom I've made purchases in the past and who, unbidden, sends me weekly sales flyers? Or an employment recruiter looking for candidates to fill a job? Would it make a difference if the job might interest me? Then there's my cousin Larry, who sends everyone in the family a continuing stream of chain letters, urban legends and unfunny jokes. Is Larry a spammer?

I find it worthwhile to distinguish between mail that comes from a known source (my bank, my travel agency, my cousin) and mail whose sender is unknown and perhaps unknowable. Some of the mail from identified sources may well be unwanted and indeed may qualify as spam, but at least there are direct ways of dealing with the issue. I can call my bank, or have a word with Cousin Larry. The anonymous spam is a harder problem. I have no reliable means of throttling back the glut of e-mail I get from YourShoppingRewards and Freddys-Fabulous-Finds.

Spam is often defined as "unsolicited commercial e-mail," and indeed almost all of it that I'm receiving currently appears to have some commercial purpose. Whoever is sending this junk is trying to make money out of it (although it's not always obvious how). Still, lots of noncommercial bulk mail would be equally unwelcome. An early Usenet spam—even before Canter & Siegel—had the subject header "Global Alert For All: Jesus is Coming Soon"; the aim was to save souls, not earn bucks, but readers were just as unhappy with the author. Spam wars can also break out between political factions or over issues such as abortion or the death penalty. (If I were a spammer, I would make 10 percent of my mailings political, just to bolster the freedom-of-speech argument against regulation of bulk e-mail. I hope I haven't just given someone an idea.) In any case, plans for controlling spam should probably not be tied too closely to its commercial nature.

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