Feeds

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

Many unhappy returns

Using blade systems to cut costs and sharpen efficiencies

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.

The smart choice: opportunity from uncertainty

More from The Register

next story
Yorkshire cops fail to grasp principle behind BT Fon Wi-Fi network
'Prevent people that are passing by to hook up to your network', pleads plod
HIDDEN packet sniffer spy tech in MILLIONS of iPhones, iPads – expert
Don't panic though – Apple's backdoor is not wide open to all, guru tells us
NEW, SINISTER web tracking tech fingerprints your computer by making it draw
Have you been on YouPorn lately, perhaps? White House website?
LibreSSL RNG bug fix: What's all the forking fuss about, ask devs
Blow to bit-spitter 'tis but a flesh wound, claim team
Black Hat anti-Tor talk smashed by lawyers' wrecking ball
Unmasking hidden users is too hot for Carnegie-Mellon
Manic malware Mayhem spreads through Linux, FreeBSD web servers
And how Google could cripple infection rate in a second
Don't look, Snowden: Security biz chases Tails with zero-day flaws alert
Exodus vows not to sell secrets of whistleblower's favorite OS
Own a Cisco modem or wireless gateway? It might be owned by someone else, too
Remote code exec in HTTP server hands kit to bad guys
prev story

Whitepapers

Seven Steps to Software Security
Seven practical steps you can begin to take today to secure your applications and prevent the damages a successful cyber-attack can cause.
Consolidation: The Foundation for IT Business Transformation
In this whitepaper learn how effective consolidation of IT and business resources can enable multiple, meaningful business benefits.
Designing a Defense for Mobile Applications
Learn about the various considerations for defending mobile applications - from the application architecture itself to the myriad testing technologies.
Build a business case: developing custom apps
Learn how to maximize the value of custom applications by accelerating and simplifying their development.
Consolidation: the foundation for IT and business transformation
In this whitepaper learn how effective consolidation of IT and business resources can enable multiple, meaningful business benefits.