Spam: Nuisance or Menace, Prevention or Cure?

Article excerpt

Unfettered global communication through the internet has facilitated a massive intrusion of unsolicited commercial email messages, commonly known as spam. Currently accounting for as much as 65 per cent of all email, spam leads to productivity costs for businesses each year and is increasingly being used for the commission of crime. This paper discusses the increasing sophistication of the techniques used to obtain email addresses, and outlines and critiques a selection of legislation which aims to reduce or remove spam. It also examines a range of measures aimed at preventing spam from reaching its intended targets. It is argued that the mitigation of spam can only be achieved through a holistic approach taken by governments, law enforcement agencies, internet service providers, corporations and consumers.

Toni Makkai

Director

Context

'Spam' is an electronic version of the direct 'junk mail' placed in domestic and business post, and/or in newspapers and magazines on a daily basis. The key differences between spam and junk mail are that the volume of spam is far greater, the intrusion of spam is far greater and the avoidance of spam is far more difficult. Spam is email sent to a large number of people who do not request it, detailing products or services in which they may have no interest. It is sent by people who disguise their identity and whom it is difficult, if not impossible, to locate or deter. About 95 per cent of spam is concerned with marketing the provision of goods and/or services (Gaudette & Chouinard 2004). Although the United States remains the largest source of spam (an estimated 60 per cent of spam messages originate from the US), it is clearly a global phenomenon (Gaudette & Chouinard 2004).

Figures concerning the volume of spam tend to be produced by email filtering companies and/or from projections based on current spam activity identified by such filtering. Because the volume and nature of spam filters differ, so too do the figures produced. However, what remains clear is that the proportion of spam present in ordinary email is rising. A global filtering company, Symantec (2004), noted that in June 2003, 49 per cent of the email messages it filtered were spam. In June 2004, of the 104 billion email messages it filtered, 65 per cent were spam. By December 2004 that figure was 67 per cent (Dunn 2005).

Why send spam?

Spam is simply a more pervasive form of direct marketing and works on the simple premise that, although the vast number of recipients will reject it, a minority will read and/or respond to the message. The costs of communicating via email are very competitive, the response rate required to generate a profit is minuscule, and the likelihood of some responses being received is a certainty. For example, the cost of sending a single email has been estimated at between US$0.000082 and US$0.000030 (McCurley 1998) and the cost of obtaining a single email address has been estimated at US$0.00032 (Cerf & Swindle 2002). In one case, a response rate of 0.0023 per cent led to sales of US$1 ,500 at a cost to the spammer of only US$350 (Wall Street Journal 2002, cited in OECD 2004: 9). In a recent US study, 33 per cent of respondents clicked on the spam email to solicit further details and seven per cent actually ordered a product or service (Fallows 2003: 26). If spam recipients respond in any way to the emails they receive, they will inevitably assist in the continued perpetuation of spam.

Dissemination

Spam can only be sent to genuine email addresses. Although spammers originally obtained their addresses from internet sites such as chat rooms, they have begun to use a more complex range of methods. Some of these rely upon the reaction of the email recipient to the action of the spammer. Thus, a spammer may target corporate email addresses, such as or . Because such sites are created to facilitate customer relations, all emails receive a response and confirm the validity of the email address. …