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Spam pays—that’s the bottom line. Economics, not technology, carries the day.
Unlike surface mail, e-mail carries no incremental cost increases for larger volumes. Even if only 1 person in 1,000 responds to a solicitation for V1agr@ or L0west R4te Life Insurance, those businesses make money. More problematic from a consumer perspective is the impossibility of distinguishing a legitimate (albeit annoying) Internet business from an organized-crime spammer out to steal your credit-card information. As if that weren’t bad enough, sometimes the spam carries a virus or worm as a payload, intended to hijack or compromise your computer.
The economics have grown so overwhelming that more than 90% of e-mail traversing the Internet is spam. According to the ePrivacy Group, the volume of spam has been growing by 18% per month. The Internet service providers have a structural problem: The accidental blocking of legitimate e-mail messages irks customers even more than the receipt of bogus messages, and no tools can kill all spam without also eliminating some genuine mail.
"This situation has created an arms race between the spammers and spam blockers," says Daniel V. Klein of LoneWolf Systems, an authority in the field of e-mail security. "Spammers are smart—for every new anti-spam technique, there is a newer spam-sending technique."
Without a fundamental change to both the technology (use more authenticated protocols) and the culture of the Internet (restrict anonymity), the factors that have created this explosion of spam will persist. Proposals to balkanize e-mail by creating the equivalent of gated communities of "safe" mail senders and recipients—as well as proposals to monetize Internet e-mail to eliminate the economic incentives of spammers—have met stiff opposition.
For the foreseeable future, the only mitigation lies in accepting that the Internet will remain a hostile environment, and recognizing the need to deploy anti-spam tools (or to contract with an anti-spam service) to protect yourself or your organization as well as possible.
Spam will always be with us, but it won’t always be the headache it is today. The incentives that motivate spammers to send unwanted e-mail come from technology and law. In the long run, we’ll adjust both to drive them out of business.
Alarming reports about the total volume of spam on the Net are beside the point. What we really care about is how much spam actually lands in our in-boxes. Thanks to new technologies, the fraction of spam that sneaks past the filters is starting to decline faster than the total volume of spam messages is increasing—so the typical user will see fewer and fewer unwanted messages.
Network operators and software firms are deploying ever-better filtering tools, using advanced machine learning and collaborative filtering (if others say that a message is spam, you won’t have to see it) to lower the odds of unwanted messages sneaking into your in-box. Eventually, we’ll be able to authenticate where messages originate, making it harder for spammers to hide. Sure, the spammers will fight back with technical tricks of their own, but we can fight on the technical front at least to a stalemate.
On the legal front, we’re raising the cost of spamming by tracking down spammers and bringing criminal and civil actions against them. Jeremy Jaynes, purveyor of fraudulent get-rich-quick e-mails, went to prison for nine years. Jeffrey Goodin, who sent fraudulent e-mails to steal individuals’ account information, got 70 months. Adam Vitale pleaded guilty to breaking anti-spam laws, and faces up to 11 years of federal time. How did investigators track down these elusive cybercriminals? By following the money.
It’s no fun being a spammer these days. Every day, the business gets riskier and less lucrative. The good guys are winning the war. We’ll never be totally free of spam, but in the long run it’s a nuisance—not a fundamental threat—to the flourishing of the Internet.Opinions and conclusions expressed in the BusinessWeek Debate Room do not necessarily reflect the views of BusinessWeek, BusinessWeek.com, or The McGraw-Hill Companies.
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