Monday, August 20, 2007

Fighting Spam - Is It A Loosing Battle?

By Coenraad De Beer

A loyal reporter of spam asked me the other day whether we are fighting a loosing battle against spam. He goes out of his way to report several spam e-mails every day, not the normal routine of spotting a spam e-mail and forwarding it, no this guy did his homework before he went out on a crusade to battle spam. Because I know what hard work it is to take action against spam, I can understand why he asked this question. After a hard day of fighting spam, you come to the conclusion that all your attempts are in vain. Abuse departments never reply to your reports and the volumes of spam hitting your mailbox seem to magically increase as you report more spam. So you are left with only one unanswered question, are we fighting a loosing battle?

In June this year, Neo from WebProWorld started a very interesting discussion on spam. Although his post mainly revolved around forum spam, he did touch a very actual topic. Spam is not only limited to one medium only, spam is a much bigger problem than most people realise. We have to deal with forum spam, search engine spam, e-mail form spam, guest book spam (for those who still use guest books on their websites), article spam (yes article syndication can also turn into annoying spam), IRC spam, blog spam, comment spam, ebook spam, affiliate network spam, mobile phone spam, and of course the infamous unsolicited junk e-mails. I am sure I missed a couple, but I think you get the picture, spam has infiltrated almost every digital form of communication. No wonder people become pessimistic about fighting spam.

Some interesting reasoning came to light during this discussion on WebProWorld. One thing that sticks out its head in every discussion about spam is the apathetic approach towards spam. The attitude of "spam has always been a problem and will always be, live with it, accept the problem, you cannot change it, nor can you fix it". There is no merit in any of these statements, so lets take a closer look at them and I will show you why. "Spam has always been a problem". Really? Spam started to become a problem when people discovered its marketing potential. Spam wasn't a problem in the early days of the Web, we allowed it to become a problem by accepting the problem. Yes people got punished back then, but the spam volumes increased so much that it became impossible to punish every single spammer. Companies seem to be more concerned about treating the symptoms (with spam filters) than attacking the root of the problem. The right statement would be: "Spam has always been allowed to be a problem."

"Spam will always be a problem". Do we know for certain? Spam may eventually cause the collapse of the e-mail communication system and how do something remain a problem if the infrastructure is gone? If you believe that spam will always be a problem, then you obviously believe that whatever replaces e-mail will also fall victim to spam. Probably, but the creators of a new communication infrastructure will be complete idiots if they allow history to repeat itself. Spam has become a problem because of crippling legislation and in certain cases a total lack of legislation. How can we battle spam if legislation allows spammers to spam you until you tell them to stop? Its like allowing murderers to kill you until you tell them to stop. Can you see how ridiculous our current spam legislation is, spam will always be a problem, as long as we allow useless laws to regulate it.

"Live with it, accept the problem, you cannot change spam, nor can you fix it". People change, they adapt to their environment. Our kids are growing up with spam, so it will have a far smaller effect on them than it had on us. Those of us who grew up with commercials and ads displayed during our favourite TV shows, have developed a kind of blindness to these ads. Our children will also develop spam blindness over time, they will not respond to spam as easily as we do. It is a matter of education and removing the ignorance. Spam only works because people continue to respond to them. According to an article by Michael Specter, "Damn Spam - The losing war on junk e-mail", spammers usually need to send a million e-mails to get fifteen positive responses, for the average direct-mail campaign, the response rate is three thousand per million. With a response rate as little as that you can easily see where spam could be heading if we can limit the response rate to zero. There will be no sense in sending spam anymore. People need to realise what is counted as a response and what they can do to limit accidental responses. Yes, simply by opening the e-mail already counts as a response in many cases.

Should we accept spam, should we live with it? Well you can easily ask, should we accept serious crimes like murder, rape and armed robbery? Just think what would happen if we had the same attitude towards these wrongdoings, crimes forbidden by civil law. What is civil law, it is actually common sense. We know it is wrong to steal money from someone else, but we are willing to live with a system where it is acceptable for other people to waste our money. That is exactly what spam is. Conventional advertising demands an investment from the advertiser, making it an unattractive medium for cheap unsolicited bulk advertising. However in the case of spam, the consumer ends up paying for the advertising. Some spammers do not even pay a penny for sending these batches of spam, they have bot networks doing the work for them. These bot networks consist of consumer PC's infected with malware. The one consumer (the sender) unknowingly pays to send the spam and the other consumer (the recipient) unknowingly pays to receive the spam. So the consumer coughs up on both sides of the channel.

Brad Taylor, Gmail anti-spam engineer, sees the battle against spam as a war. One side eventually gets tired and anti-spam authorities cannot allow themselves to get tired in this struggle against spam. Sometimes the spammers get tired of trying to fool the spam filters and eventually give up, but only for a short space of time. During this rest period they regroup to find a loophole in the filtering system. Once they discover a way around it, they start spamming again. Stock market spam is a classic example of this roller coaster ride. Stock market spam was quiet for some time and suddenly they started popping up like weed via PDF attachments. Spammers will always try to circumvent the system. Does this mean we should give up trying to beat them at their own game? Absolutely no, spammers annoy us with their unsolicited junk, so if we have means to our disposal to annoy them too, why not use it? The war against spam is far from over, the battle against spam is far from lost, I say bring it on.

About the Author
Coenraad is webmaster and founder of Cyber Top Cops, leaders in Internet security, prevention of online fraud and raising awareness about the importance of reporting spam.