Feeds

30 years of Spam - and we ain't finished yet

Many unhappy returns

Providing a secure and efficient Helpdesk

Spam celebrates its 30th birthday on Saturday (3 May).

On that day in 1978, 393 Arpanet subscribers were sent what's reckoned to be the first ever spam email1 in history (the message itself was written on 1 May 1978).

DEC marketing rep Gary Thuerk came up with the wheeze which produced a fierce backlash from Arpanet (military) administrators, as well as a small number of sales.

After first appearing on Arpanet, unsolicited bulk commercial ads moved over to Usenet, email and websites links. Much to the chagrin of Hormel Foods, the term spam was applied to the phenomenon in a pop-culture reference to the spam skit from Monty Python's Flying Circus, where all meals in a restaurant come with spam, spam and more spam. Junk email - not nourishing luncheon meat - has become the principal meaning of the word spam.

A lot has changed in the three decades since. Instead of a select group of academics, practically the entire online population (estimated at 1.3 billion) is subjected to a daily deluge of junk mail messages.

Spam filtering technology has come on a long way in the last three or four years in particular, but eradicating the problem has proved a far more difficult task than originally imagined.

In January 2004, Bill Gates predicted that spam email would be eradicated as a problem within 24 months. Gates outlined a three-stage plan to eradicate spam within two years.

Microsoft's scheme called for better filters to weed out spam messages and sender authentication via a form of challenge-response system. Secondly, Microsoft wanted to see tar-pitting so that emails coming from unknown senders were slowed down to a point where bulk mail runs become impractical.

Lastly, and most promisingly as far as Gates was concerned, was a digital equivalent of stamps for email, to be paid out only if the recipient considers an email to be spam.

The third idea never really got off the ground while the first two (already in the works when Gates made his speech) have been applied across the industry, at least in part.

But as anti-spam defences have advanced, so have spamming methods. Using compromised email gateways, which can be relatively quickly blacklisted, is a thing of the past as junk mail miscreants have moved over to using networks of compromised PCs (botnets).

As techniques for identifying and taking down botnet control servers have evolved so too have hacker techniques so that, for example, compromised nodes search for control servers and communicate using HTTP rather than IRC channels.

Meanwhile, spam has begun appearing on other platforms, such as mobile phones. According to research from the International Telecommunication Union (ITU), more than 80 per cent of phone users worldwide have received spam on their mobile.

An estimated 95 per cent of all email is spam. If nobody responded to spam the tactic would not be commercially viable, but a recent survey conducted by Sophos revealed that 11 per cent of people admit to having bought goods in response to spam messages.

Sophos launched a campaign on Thursday urging people to resist clicking on spam links, in the hope that spam will not reach its next landmark anniversary. ®

1 A copy of Thuerk's messages, advertising West Coast demos of a new hardware system from DEC, along with the negative reactions it provoked can be found here in an article by Brad Templeton, chairman of the Electronic Frontier Foundation. A young Richard Stallman was among the minority who suggested DEC's mass message was nothing to get upset about.

Choosing a cloud hosting partner with confidence

More from The Register

next story
SMASH the Bash bug! Apple and Red Hat scramble for patch batches
'Applying multiple security updates is extremely difficult'
Shellshock: 'Larger scale attack' on its way, warn securo-bods
Not just web servers under threat - though TENS of THOUSANDS have been hit
Apple's new iPhone 6 vulnerable to last year's TouchID fingerprint hack
But unsophisticated thieves need not attempt this trick
Hackers thrash Bash Shellshock bug: World races to cover hole
Update your gear now to avoid early attacks hitting the web
Oracle SHELLSHOCKER - data titan lists unpatchables
Database kingpin lists 32 products that can't be patched (yet) as GNU fixes second vuln
Who.is does the Harlem Shake
Blame it on LOLing XSS terroristas
Researchers tell black hats: 'YOU'RE SOOO PREDICTABLE'
Want to register that domain? We're way ahead of you.
Stunned by Shellshock Bash bug? Patch all you can – or be punished
UK data watchdog rolls up its sleeves, polishes truncheon
prev story

Whitepapers

A strategic approach to identity relationship management
ForgeRock commissioned Forrester to evaluate companies’ IAM practices and requirements when it comes to customer-facing scenarios versus employee-facing ones.
Storage capacity and performance optimization at Mizuno USA
Mizuno USA turn to Tegile storage technology to solve both their SAN and backup issues.
High Performance for All
While HPC is not new, it has traditionally been seen as a specialist area – is it now geared up to meet more mainstream requirements?
Beginner's guide to SSL certificates
De-mystify the technology involved and give you the information you need to make the best decision when considering your online security options.
Security for virtualized datacentres
Legacy security solutions are inefficient due to the architectural differences between physical and virtual environments.