A ccording to an anonymous posting on the internet, the US could experience 'the world's largest spam fest' this weekend. The message " which appeared on a website dedicated to people who want to discuss IT matters " contained an offer to rent out a series of 'hijacked' personal computers to spammers.
But the flurry of unwanted spam emails that will be delivered to unsuspecting computer users will contain more than just advertisements for drugs to enlarge male body parts and pornographic websites. Spam is increasingly being used by criminals to trick computer users into handing over their personal details.
Many of the spam attacks are done over software developed by Microsoft, be it its pervasive Windows operating system or its free Hotmail email service. The man in charge of fighting this ever- growing tide is Peter Cullen. The former Royal Bank of Canada executive is the head of privacy at Microsoft. His job description is simple, but the scale of the task is huge.
Speaking at last year's World Economic Forum in Davos, Microsoft's founder, Bill Gates, famously declared that spam would be history by 2006. Two years on and this statement is almost laughable.
Some 65 per cent of all emails sent over the internet are spam, and Cullen refuses to put a date on when this 21st-century nuisance will be eliminated. 'Oh boy, that's a difficult one,' he says. 'We hope to get to a point where life will become so difficult for spammers they just won't bother.'
Microsoft is doing its bit in two ways. First, it is hunting down spammers and then passing their details to the law enforcement agencies. Recently it handled a case where hundreds of spam emails were mailed from a computer in Idaho owned by a 71-year-old man. The spam was sent via an internet service provider in Austria, which was routed back to a company in the US. The offender was eventually tracked down and identified as a 21-year- old who was borrowing his father's computer. He is now being questioned by the FBI.
That case highlights just how easy it is to spam. 'If you are a criminal then you have a choice. You can put on a Balaclava and go and rob a bank, or you can sit at home in front of a computer,' says Cullen.
The tools of the spammers' trade are not difficult to come by. Cullen says that a 'bot farm' " a collection of around 1,000 home computers that have been hijacked by a hacker " can be hired for as little as $29.95 (pounds 17) a day to send out the nuisance emails.
But as well as hunting down the criminals, Microsoft is attempting to make spammers' lives more difficult. For example, it has developed software that automatically blocks spam emails; made it difficult for people to create …