One of the biggest internet irritants over the last decade or two clearly has
to be email spam. It has collectively taken billions of hours of users' time to
deal with, consumed countless terabytes of wasted disk space, burned
bandwidth better spent on kitten videos, and used up vast quantities of
developer time to come up with new ways to filter it out or come up with
other technological fixes. So, recent reports
that email spam is in decline are certainly welcome, if true, but even with the 90%
decline over the last year that is being reported, the amount of spam being
sent is still staggering—and likely to be with us for a long time to
I haven't heard friends and colleagues extolling a reduction in the
amount of spam they receive but, as they say, the plural of anecdote is not
data. One would think that such a precipitous drop would be noticed by
however. In any case, Cisco, Symantec, and others are reporting numbers
like 34 billion spam emails per day for April, down from 300 billion in
mid-2010. That's an enormous drop in the volume, even if 34 billion a day
is still huge. Without any hard data to the contrary, some
significant drop-off in spam volume is a reasonable conclusion—and
one worth exploring a little bit.
Spam has always been driven by its economics. In the early days, it cost
almost nothing to send out huge volumes of email, and the chances of
getting caught and meaningfully punished were quite small. That led to
various "spam kings" who made outrageous amounts of money by spamming the
world. If sending spam is, for all intents and purposes, free, you don't
need a very high response rate to the pitch in order to bring in
substantial sums. But that led to a backlash.
Users quickly tired of digging through email that was 90-100% spam, ISPs
got smarter about not allowing their systems to be used for spam
transmission, and, eventually, governments decided to ramp up the
punishment side of the equation. Spam filtering became ubiquitous,
blacklists that identified sites sending spam started to pop up,
prosecutions of those sending spam were successful to some extent, and so
on. The cost of sending spam has risen substantially over the years.
That's not to say that there aren't some folks still making lots of money
sending spam, but these days there are bigger phish (so to speak) to fry.
The most lucrative schemes today don't rely on sending enormous
volumes of email and are more targeted instead.
It would be nice to think that users are getting a bit more
sophisticated—or just running out of body parts to enlarge. It's
say whether that's true or not, but, even with the growth in new internet
users, one might hope that the negative publicity about internet scams is
making users more wary. Unfortunately, one doesn't have to search very far
find a news item about someone taken in by email claiming to be from a
foreigner who wants to send them "EIGHT BILLION DOLLARS". So, it's
probably overoptimistic to attribute much of the spam volume drop to users
being less likely to respond to the pitch.
Filtering has certainly gotten better over the years, and moved from
something users had to fiddle with to "the cloud" (or at least their ISP).
Spammers have routinely run their emails through tools like SpamAssassin to
try to evade filters, but there are limits to that approach, especially
when individual Bayesian filters are factored in. It's difficult for even
gullible users to respond to a spam pitch they don't see, so filtering has
likely done much to reduce the effectiveness of spam.
Another factor that may be at play here is that many folks have moved
beyond email for much or all of their communication. Text messages, instant
messaging, and the services provided by various walled gardens
(e.g. Facebook, Twitter) have replaced email for a lot of people,
especially those darn kids, these days. Spam has, of course, evolved to
assail those media as well. That kind of spam is not reflected in these recent
So, while it is somewhat heartening to hear that some folks are probably
receiving less email spam, it's unlikely that it's really going to change
things for most people. Users will still need filtering, ISPs and
governments will still need to be vigilant, and clicking on links in dodgy
email will still be a bad idea. While likely mind-numbing, seven days of
all the email you receive might also prove somewhat eye-opening.
Like it or not, spam has become part of our culture. From the origin of
the "spam" name to the various terms for different kinds of spam (419
spam, phishing, etc.), spam has used and been used by internet culture.
Over the years, various folks
have imagined horrible demises for spammers—e.g.
34—usually involving the products they pitch in some
bizarre fashion. So, at least we can get a chuckle from spam now and again,
even as it is an extremely annoying—sometimes
dangerous—phenomenon. In fact,
it would be nice if junk (snail) mail filters were even half as good as email
filters are these days.
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