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Peter Cochrane's Uncommon Sense: Not So Wonderful Spam
Doubling every 18 months - just like Moore's Law

It all started with junk mail through the letterbox - piles of unwanted paper advertising heading straight for the trash. Then it was telesales calling in the middle of dinner to try and sell us double-glazing and insurance we didn't need. Then it migrated to fax machines and free-to-sender paper and ink. Only worse was to come! Spam email and mobile phone text messages and sales calls. Why the migration? More for less - or even better - nothing! Junk mail, fax, phone and text message cost money but email is free.

My defence against junk snail mail is to 'return to sender' - at their expense. And those annoying call centre sales people? I just answer with: "Let me get my father to talk with you." I then leave the handset dangling while I finish dinner. The phone company makes some money, the call centre folks get frustrated and the funding agency loses money.

Both strategies seem to work. I never saw the need for a fax machine and so never developed a strategy to frustrate that means of interrupting my life, and so far my mobile phone has been relatively quiet. But my email is another story.

A mere five years ago the incidence of unsolicited email was extremely low and three years ago it was mildly irritating but today spam is gradually taking over email accounts and screens. Some report up to 70 per cent spam, and an estimated 50 per cent of all email traffic is now spam. What happened? Someone figured out that email offers the biggest bang per buck - more people in less time for near zero cost.

Few have escaped the spam menace, although there seems to be a significant difference between those using professional services compared to the free email accounts. In the company environment surveys indicate that while some are seeing little or no spam, others are reporting 30 to 50 per cent. The really big hitters seem to be those outside company-controlled or professional environments.

Over the last three years I have seen an increase in spam content and a variety of styles and applications. For me it started with porn spam emanating from South East Asia and more recently it has been dominated by fine art spam from the US - quite a contrast. It is difficult to be specific in terms of growth rate but it is exponential and seems to be doubling every 18 months - just like Moore's Law!

I see a breakdown of advertising and offensive material at a level of about 40 per cent, while the remainder are the straightforward sales and services pitches. And of course there is the regular financial scams looking like they emanate from Africa, where I am offered $10m for the transitory use of my bank account. Apparently this one is a $2bn per year industry - I call it fly fishing for suckers. Send enough of these emails and someone somewhere will bite.

When I analyse my time spent dealing with spam it amounts to less than 10 minutes a day but the irritation factor is far greater than any other activity. What worries me is the spammers appending bigger and bigger files and reducing the capacity of my email account to cope with a normal day's work. The vast majority of us have some finite limit on our email accounts and we strive to keep mailboxes reasonably clear for the occasional surge.

If you are a road warrior you can find yourself on thin pipes into the Internet where you cannot economically access large attachments. To remove these risks missing something important. This can be a serious threat to business, especially as spammers become increasingly cunning in the way they disguise the importance of what they have sent. Sooner or later important emails are going to be rejected with the message that says 'Sorry this email account is full'.

What can we do? The first obvious action is to report all spam sources to our webmasters and get them blocked at a server level. Second, we can employ individual spam filters that automatically reject and delete garbage on our individual accounts. The problem here is that too aggressive a filter will see important emails thrown out too, whilst a lax filter will have virtually no positive impact.

As spammers are Borg-like - they continually adapt to technological change - we have to try and keep ahead to frustrate them. My personal approach is to identify every spam source and log it into a spam filter that rejects everything emanating from that address or title thereafter but this still sees me receiving an irritating level of spam.

Ultimately I suspect we are going to have to invoke legislation, country by country, to suppress and control the growing spam industry. We may even be reduced to funding and empowering organisations to take out the spammers by flooding their servers with useless email too. What a waste of good technology and time!

For those tempted to reply to a spam and more especially to invoke the 'delete me from your email list' reply, my advice is don't do it. As a general rule once they know you are on the end of an email account they will keep coming. If they get no reply or confirmation of your existence they may just give up.

Averaging a spread of recently published surveys, it seems that:

  • 40 per cent of us receive more than 100 spam emails a week
  • 20 per cent really object to spam
  • 80 per cent with children worry even more about spam
  • 40 per cent worry about pornography
  • 50 per cent are really irritated about wasting time deleting spam
  • 50 per cent don't use spam filters
  • The Nigerian banking scam is now the second largest industry in that country
If spam continues to grow at its present rate it will totally dominate by 2004 and stands a good chance of bringing down the entire internet through overload.

I think it is up to individuals, companies, ISPs and network providers to join forces to spam the spammers.

This column was dictated after deleting 13 unsolicited emails. The tape was then handed to my secretary and typed up on her Apple G4 laptop. It appeared on my screen four hours later via a cable modem link. I revised it over breakfast on the Ipswich to London train and despatched it to from Liverpool Street Station using my 2.5G mobile.