Apart from the numerous benefits and conveniences people around the world can enjoy due to the Internet, there are also multiple drawbacks. Not all of them are obvious to an average user, and perhaps only professional IT workers face them from time to time. However, there is a problem almost any Internet user has encountered at least once in a lifetime. Unlike many people might think, spam is not just an annoying but harmless email message; in fact, spam can be a dangerous tool capable of harming its recipients, and should be outlawed.
Spam can cause real damage. If you wonder how a mere electronic letter can be harmful, first recall the usual contents of spam letters. Along with intrusive commercials and newsletters from electronic shops you have used only once, every email user is also at risk of receiving spam letters advertising pornography, weapons, and other questionable content. Although it might be safe in the United States of America, the European Union, and some western countries, it can be illegal in more religious countries—especially in Islamic states. A citizen of such a country who has received a spam letter with porn can be thrown in jail for nothing. A person who never looked for such content might be accused of consuming it. This is not to mention child pornography, which is also distributed and advertised through spam messages (IFR).
Having to deal with spam day by day can be stressful. Even though spam messages usually have an “unsubscribe” link, getting off a spammer’s list requires a number of actions, such as visiting the website, acknowledging unsubscription, sending confirmation letters, typing the captcha, and so on. This might be not a problem in the case of being a target of several spammers; however, usually Internet users receive dozens of spam messages daily; unsubscribing from each of them is almost impossible. Many AOL users, who are now having hard times dealing with spam, report they are already nearing the point when their mailboxes stop being useful for them because of spam (Spam Abuse).
Spam can be harmful in yet another way. Rather often, spam emails contain viruses such as trojans, worms, unblockable ads, bitcoin miners, and other malware; opening a message with such a program can instantly damage users’ computers. Spam is a tool for all kinds of frauds; for example, inheritance frauds are popular, when a user receives a personalized and seemingly credible email from a lawyer (often with a personal website and social media accounts) informing them about inheriting a sum of money, or real estate, and requiring them to send personal data for a final check. Spam often advertises low-quality, fake, or misleading products; various self-improvement and plastic surgery services and products are also distributed through spam—no need to say they deal more harm than use (FW2.com).
All these facts speak in favor of the necessity to proclaim spam illegal. A seemingly harmless electronic message can deal real damage: involve a user in a scam, contaminate their computer with malware, or even cause accusations in illegal actions such as distributing child pornography. Therefore, this problem should not be overlooked, and spam should be outlawed.
“Why is Spam Bad?” Spam Abuse. N.p., n.d. Web. 15 Jan. 2016.
“Why is Spam Bad?” FW2.com. N.p., n.d. Web. 15 Jan. 2016.
“The Real Threat Spam Possesses.” IFR. N.p., n.d. Web. 15 Jan. 2016.
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Why Spam Won't Go Away
Spam is filling up the Internet, and it's not going away anytime soon.
It's not just e-mail. We have voice-over-IP spam, instant message spam, cellphone text message spam, blog comment spam and Usenet newsgroup spam. And, if you think broadly enough, these computer-network spam delivery mechanisms join the ranks of computer telemarketing (phone spam), junk mail (paper spam), billboards (visual space spam) and cars driving through town with megaphones (audio spam). It's all basically the same thing--unsolicited marketing messages--and only by understanding the problem at this level of generality can we discuss solutions.
In general, the goal of advertising is to influence people. Usually, it's to influence people to purchase a product, but it could just as easily be to influence people to support a particular political candidate or position. Advertising does this by implanting a marketing message into the brain of the recipient. The mechanism of implantation is simply a tactic.
Tactics rise and fall in popularity based on their costs and benefits. If the benefit is significant, people are willing to spend more. If the benefit is small, people will only do it if it is cheap. A 30-second prime-time television ad costs 1.8 cents per adult viewer; a full-page color magazine ad about 0.9 cents per reader. A highway billboard costs 0.21 cents per car. Direct mail is the most expensive, at over 50 cents per third-class letter mailed. Direct mail needs to be far more effective than a highway billboard, per recipient, to justify the cost.
Spam is such a common tactic not because it's particularly effective--the response rates for spam are very low--but because it's ridiculously cheap. Typically, spammers charge less than a hundredth of a cent per recipient. And that number is what spamming houses charge their customers to deliver spam; if you're a clever hacker, you can build your own spam network for much less money.
If it's worth $10 for you to successfully influence one person--to buy your product, vote for your guy, whatever--then you only need a 1-in-100,000 success rate. You can market really marginal products with spam.
However, this cost/benefit calculation is missing a component: the cost to the recipient. Spam costs corporations millions in Internet capacity, clogs up infrastructure, requires people and products to deal with it and wastes employees' time wading through whatever spam makes it into their inboxes.
There are also less tangible costs. Marketing messages annoy. The advertiser pays part of the cost of annoying people if they decide to boycott his product. But more of the cost is paid by the receiver: the beauty of the landscape is ruined by the billboard, dinner is disrupted by a telemarketer, spam makes e-mail a more annoying task and so on.
This is why spam is such a hard problem to solve. For each e-mail, the spammer pays a cost and receives a benefit. But there is an additional cost paid by the e-mail recipient. Because so much spam is unwanted, that additional cost is huge--and it's a cost that the spammer never sees. If spammers could be made to bear the total cost of spam, then its level would be more along the lines of what society would find acceptable.
The best solutions raise the cost of sending spam. Spam filters raise the cost by increasing the amount of spam that someone needs to send before someone will read it. If 99% of all spam is filtered into trash, then sending spam becomes 100 times more expensive.
This is also the idea behind whitelists--lists of senders a user is willing to accept e-mail from--and blacklists--lists of senders a user is not willing to accept e-mail from.
Filtering doesn't just have to be at the recipient's e-mail. It can be implemented within the network, or at the sender level. Several Internet service providers already filter both outgoing and incoming e-mail for spam, and so do Web-based e-mail providers like Google, Yahoo!, and Microsoft. The trend will increase.
Anti-spam laws are another attempt to raise the cost of spam to an intolerable level; no one wants to go to jail for spamming. We've already seen some convictions in the U.S. Unfortunately, this only works when the spammer is within the reach of the law; it's less effective against criminals who are already committing fraud and using spam merely as a mechanism.
Other proposed solutions try to impose direct costs on e-mail senders. I have seen proposals for e-mail "postage," either for every e-mail sent or for every e-mail above a reasonable threshold. I have seen proposals where the sender of an e-mail posts a small bond, which the receiver can cash if the e-mail is spam. There are other proposals that involve "computational puzzles": time-consuming tasks the sender's computer must perform, unnoticeable to someone who is sending e-mail normally, but too much for someone sending e-mail in bulk. These solutions generally involve re-engineering the Internet, something that is not done lightly, and hence are in the discussion stages only.
The best way to think of this is an arms race. Anti-spam products block a certain type of spam. Spammers invent a tactic that gets around those products. Then the products block that spam. Then the spammers invent yet another type of spam. And so on.
Blacklisting spammer sites forced the spammers to disguise the origin of spam e-mail. White lists, and other anti-spam measures, led spammers to hack into innocent machines and use them as launching pads. Scanning millions of e-mails looking for identical bulk spam forced spammers to individualize each spam message. Semantic spam detection forced spammers to design even more clever spam, or embed their messages within images. Each defense is met with yet another attack, and each attack is met with yet another defense.
Honestly, there's no end in sight. In early 2004, Bill Gates stood up at the World Economic Forum and predicted the end of spam within two years. Last week, The New York Timesreported that spam has doubled in the past year and now accounts for 90% of all e-mail messages.
But even so, spam is one of computer security's success stories; current anti-spam products work pretty well. I get only a few spam messages a day, and very few legitimate e-mails end up in my spam trap. It will be a long time before spam stops clogging up the Internet, but at least we don't have to look at it.
Categories: Computer and Information Security