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

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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.

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