Feeds

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

Many unhappy returns

Beginner's guide to SSL certificates

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.

Protecting users from Firesheep and other Sidejacking attacks with SSL

More from The Register

next story
Spies would need SUPER POWERS to tap undersea cables
Why mess with armoured 10kV cables when land-based, and legal, snoop tools are easier?
Early result from Scots indyref vote? NAW, Jimmy - it's a SCAM
Anyone claiming to know before tomorrow is telling porkies
TOR users become FBI's No.1 hacking target after legal power grab
Be afeared, me hearties, these scoundrels be spying our signals
Jihadi terrorists DIDN'T encrypt their comms 'cos of Snowden leaks
Intel bods' analysis concludes 'no significant change' after whistle was blown
Home Depot: 56 million bank cards pwned by malware in our tills
That's about 50 per cent bigger than the Target tills mega-hack
Hackers pop Brazil newspaper to root home routers
Step One: try default passwords. Step Two: Repeat Step One until success
China hacked US Army transport orgs TWENTY TIMES in ONE YEAR
FBI et al knew of nine hacks - but didn't tell TRANSCOM
Microsoft to patch ASP.NET mess even if you don't
We know what's good for you, because we made the mess says Redmond
NORKS ban Wi-Fi and satellite internet at embassies
Crackdown on tardy diplomatic sysadmins providing accidental unfiltered internet access
prev story

Whitepapers

Providing a secure and efficient Helpdesk
A single remote control platform for user support is be key to providing an efficient helpdesk. Retain full control over the way in which screen and keystroke data is transmitted.
WIN a very cool portable ZX Spectrum
Win a one-off portable Spectrum built by legendary hardware hacker Ben Heck
Saudi Petroleum chooses Tegile storage solution
A storage solution that addresses company growth and performance for business-critical applications of caseware archive and search along with other key operational systems.
Protecting users from Firesheep and other Sidejacking attacks with SSL
Discussing the vulnerabilities inherent in Wi-Fi networks, and how using TLS/SSL for your entire site will assure security.
Security for virtualized datacentres
Legacy security solutions are inefficient due to the architectural differences between physical and virtual environments.