Happy birthday, spam! Do you mind if we don’t celebrate?

Junk mail is 20 years old – and there’s more of it every day

24 May 2014

9:00 AM

24 May 2014

9:00 AM

The other day, I got an email advertising ‘miracle’ weight loss. You know the sort: English as defined by Boggle and no way on earth that anyone would ever buy the product in question. I opened it without thinking, and was redirected to a blank page. Within minutes, my Hotmail, Twitter and WordPress accounts had gone haywire; I stared at my computer screen as the original message replicated itself and fired off to every single one of my contacts. My groan lasted about 20 minutes: why, I asked myself, would anyone bother doing this to me?

It turned out I’d been hacked on a convenient anniversary. In April 1994, two American lawyers called Laurence Canter and Martha Siegel sent out the first ever commercial spam message. It was an advert for their help registering for a ‘Green Card Lottery’ — a sort of lucky dip for US residency. The message, posted on a Usenet discussion forum, was read millions of times but cost only a tiny amount to send. In the space of a hundred words, Canter and Siegel had redefined the word ‘annoying’ for the 21st century.

These days, spam never stops. But who can be so desperate for online gaming, simulated sex or Viagra that they’re taken in?

The answer is: practically no one. A spammer who sends out 35 million emails in a month can expect around 20 sales of whatever it is they’re advertising. The numbers are massive, and as email services improve their defences, the reward is increasingly pitiful. On the other hand, the costs are practically nothing, too: a million email addresses can go for about $20. And if you’re in, say, Romania, a country where the cost of living is small and IT training readily available, then you could end up quids in. In fact, a qualified IT worker might have no other way to earn.

This, in short, is why normal spam is so unconvincing. While early junk mail was written by opportunists in the countries being targeted — that is, the western nations where the internet was more prevalent — today’s spam comes from the places where it’s still possible to make a living sending it. A huge amount of it is just text sourced at random from other web pages.

But this is all changing. As long ago as 1996, a student at Melbourne’s Monash University called Andrew Bulhak came up with a system that could write its own Roland Barthes-lite essays, sourcing academic clichés and sentence structure from the real deal. He put it up on the internet as a joke and became a cult hero to time-wasting students everywhere. The essays it generates, with footnotes and all, look exactly like postmodern academic theory — it takes a patient reader to realise that they’re utter nonsense. For budding con men, Bulhak’s Postmodernism Generator was an early indication of how ambitious it was possible to be.

As Bulhak tells me, enterprising spammers are using similar robot text generating programmes that do pitch-perfect imitations of real people. In one case, reported by Atlantic Monthly, a spammer developed a botnet that could do an impressive mimickry of Bay Area hipster speak, complete with phrases like ‘coffee evangelist’ and ‘bacon ninja’. It’s not hard to imagine a convincing text engine being used to pull off scams.

Spam now makes up anything between 85 and 92 per cent of global email traffic, a volume that requires internet service providers to constantly upgrade their servers; not only are they locked in a kind of arms race developing new filters, but that amount of messages takes up a lot of space. It is, as Bulhak puts it, ‘a cat and mouse game’ between the ISPs and mail pirates.

The obvious answer is to tighten regulation — but it’s an international problem, and the countries keenest to police the internet tend to be the ones you’d trust least with your inbox. China, for instance, threatens spammers with the death penalty. This doesn’t stop it from producing around 5 per cent of the world’s junk mail. As Bulhak says, ‘A knee-jerk reaction would be ineffective, harmful or both — it would be easy to come up with a proposal that looks tough but is trivially easy to bypass, whilst criminalising large segments of the otherwise law-abiding public.’

For the moment, then, we’re stuck in a war with the spammers that looks unlikely to end, whatever measures are taken. For them, it’s the same principle as any criminal activity — as Bulhak tells me, quoting William Gibson, ‘The street finds its own uses for things.’ Whatever the case, I won’t be celebrating when the next anniversary rolls around.

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  • Arthur Istook

    Whether it is our gadgets, gizmos, or gasoline, almost every convenience of our modern civilization is a product of knowledge and ability applied by someone we don’t know and will likely never know.