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Spam is 10

Many, many unhappy returns

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Today (5 March) marks the tenth anniversary of what is generally considered the first spam message.

On this day in 1994, US law firm Canter and Siegel posted a message on several Usenet newsgroups advertising its services to people interested in participating in the US Green Card lottery.

These days we'd barely bat an eyelid at such a message but at the time it was considered as appalling breach of "netiquette" - the unspoken rules of polite behaviour online. It was the cyber equivalent of trying to sell cellophane-wrapped roses in the middle of a crowded pub while the footy is on the TV.

When it became clear from Canter and Siegel's continued postings that their spams were being neither effectively blocked nor ignored, others soon latched onto the technique as a way of touting for business for (practically) nothing.

The wave of Usenet spam that followed effectively destroyed the usefulness of newsgroups. Bulk mailers then turned their attention to email as the next vector.

Fast forward 10 years and we have a seemingly endless stream of messages flogging loans, body part enhancement, xxx sites and worse.

"By daring to try what no one had done before, those first spam messages opened the floodgates to the deluge we battle daily," Netcraft notes.

According to stats from anti-spam outfit Brightmail, 62 per cent of email messages flowing across the Net last month was spam.

As security experts try to shut down their operations, spammers resort to ever more devious tactics. For instance, worms like SoBig and MyDoom are widely believed to have established a network of spam-sending Zombie machines.

Even if we can take some comfort from improvements in spam filtering techniques, the outlook is grim. It's reasonable to suppose that new forms of intrusive message (e.g. spam sent to mobile phones) will become more commonplace.

Hatred of spam is pretty well universal; but reducing the volume of junk mail down to background noise levels is proving to be one of the toughest challenges the Internet community has faced. It's a battle that simply must be won. ®

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MS takes fight to the spammers
Spam villains: named and shamed
Trojans as spam robots: the evidence
UK Watchdog bites mobile spam scammers
The economics of spam

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