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Friday, May 02, 2008

30 years old, but it doesn't look it

THIS week, the world marks an anniversary that has changed the face — and other anatomical regions — of email inboxes everywhere: the first known spam email was sent 30 years ago on Saturday.
But the message sent on May 3, 1978 by a marketer for the now defunct DEC computer company to around 400 people on the west coast of the United States wasn't called spam, and the sender dispatched it without ill intent.

How things have changed.

Spam got its name from a skit by the television show Monty Python's Flying Circus, in which a group of Vikings in a restaurant that serves all of its food with Spam tinned meat sing a song repeating the word ad nauseum, says Brad Templeton, who has thoroughly researched the subject.

"Thus, the meaning of the term at least: something that keeps repeating and repeating to great annoyance," said Mr Templeton, who was dabbling in the internet in the 1970s — when it was still the US government-run Arpanet.


These days spamming is a sophisticated operation that affects millions and jams ill-prepared email inboxes.

The percentage of spam sent to account holders on Gmail - the email service offered by Google - quadrupled between 2004 and 2008, climbing from 20 percent to around 80 per cent.

"To give you some sense of scale, we have tens of millions of users worldwide," Gmail's Jason Freidenfelds said, adding that only about one per cent of spam gets through Gmail's spam-filtering system, according to user feedback.

Spam methodology has also changed in the past 30 years.

Whereas the sender of the first spam had to type in each recipient's address individually, today the job is often done remotely using cyber-monsters called botnets.

Botnets have hijacked around 30 per cent of personal and office computers with inadequate security features and use them to dispatch thousands of spams each day, Mr Templeton said.

"The recruited computers wait for commands that come through anonymous channels and tell them to send spam email to 1,000 people, all unbeknownst to their owners. The people who do this control millions of computers around the world," Mr Templeton said.

"Don't look to the guy to your left, don't look to the guy to your right. It's you," he said ominously.

Spam content and motives have also evolved since the 1978 message, which was an invitation to a product launch.

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