Spam with everything

John Gilbey on a sharp account of the increasingly complex business of preventing unwanted emails

May 16, 2013

For most of us, our relationship with spam began almost gently: those short, jokey email messages reaching out to us from distant lands, with an intriguing, almost whimsical character. But they quickly grew into more forceful entreaties to help, support, defend or publicise some victim of an injustice we didn’t understand in a place we’d never heard of, adverts for exotic pharmaceuticals with the alleged power to enhance pretty much any body part you could think of. Then bizarre offers began to arrive that promised huge rewards in exchange for granting the simplest of help to someone caught out on the wrong side of a conflict, coup d’etat, bereavement or legacy - interspersed with excited, conspiratorial messages about stocks in not-quite-familiar companies whose value was on the verge of going through the roof, honest.

As the technology of email migrated from stilted, mono-spaced text to richer, bolder formats, the messages became simultaneously more graphical and infinitely more graphic. Such was the nature and volume of the material, the tenacity of the originators, the evolution of spam-based malware as an escalating threat and the potential impact on the recipients that huge technical forces began to be pitted against those shadowy figures behind the great rafts of spam - which were now appearing in volumes that threatened to overwhelm the email systems of the world. Finn Brunton’s excellent cultural history of spam offers a readable, witty account of the battle between the spammers and the spammed - a battle of often surprising complexity and astonishing technological escalation, in an arms race that is still being fought.

“Digital defence against the dark arts”, as it is known, has formed a significant part of my duties through most of this series of campaigns - and I have the scars to prove it. I once set out to calculate the full economic cost of unsolicited, unwanted email messages to the organisation I worked for. The unit costs associated with the corporate provision of effective information technology were painfully substantial at the time - and we considered ourselves to be early adopters at the edge of what was possible. Disk storage, wide-area network bandwidth and processing power all came with eye-watering price tags and were carefully garnered and managed - and we were not a little disgruntled to find that bad folk were usurping the resources that we had painstakingly established for our noble purposes.

Hence the calculation. Some elements were easy to measure: hardware costs based on the assumed scale of the problem, the percentage of our costly bandwidth being occupied by this unwanted traffic. Other aspects were more problematic, such as estimating the time taken to open, read and discard the dross - especially when scaled up across a whole organisation. Then there were the risks even less easy to evaluate: suppose that a message with a particular lack of moral integrity popped up on screen during a presentation to a major customer? The loss of reputation, and income, could be considerable.

Using software tools to block these unwanted messages was also not without risk. Applications to remove spam were starting to evolve, but remained in a constant state of development as the threats became more sophisticated. Most needed tweaking to reach a point where false positives - where a legitimate message might be junked - were at an acceptably low level. “Acceptably low” is an especially difficult term to pin down, as it may take only one crucial communication to be erroneously blocked for the whole system - and its managers - to lose the confidence of the customer. Just before I abandoned the attempt at a realistic costing, and in a burst of something approaching despair, I crossed out “An Evaluation” in the title of the report and replaced it with “A Speculation”.

As email technology migrated from stilted monospaced text to richer, bolder formats, the messages became graphical and infinitely more graphic

Most computer users are still aware of - and possibly mildly affronted by - the day-to-day annoyance of spam messages, although as time has passed the tools to deal with them have become substantially more sophisticated and we have become more protected from them. Brunton explores in considerable detail the strangely involving history of spam development, and weaves into it varied threads of cultural and technical impacts that have surprising breadth and range. Perhaps because we have all been touched by spam at some level, the perspective given by the author is in part a commentary on our own development as internet users - although spam has its origins in the much more distant past.

Take, for example the all too common “419” scam - named for an article of the Nigerian criminal code - that is so beloved of spammers. You receive an email purporting to be from an African prince, oil magnate or government minister - or indeed his widow, son or mistress - who is inexplicably seeking your help in getting hold of a hoard of hidden funds. You are offered a massive bribe in exchange for your help in laundering or otherwise retrieving the money, but the sting is made in the demand for your bank details and an advance administrative fee. Once you have committed your own funds, of course, the hoard vanishes faster than free beer at a computing conference. When I first came across this scam, I assumed it was a newly devised scheme, but Brunton points out that it has its origins in postal frauds perpetrated as early as the 1890s. The capacity for human folly and greed appears to have few limits.

Equally intriguing are the artistic phenomena that have grown up around such schemes. Brunton cites examples of a thriving subculture of videos and music that celebrate the canny deeds of the spammers and their obvious amused contempt for their victims. Part of the richness of this book is the way in which Brunton draws together information from a comprehensive and eclectic set of sources - including some individuals who, perhaps understandably, “prefer to remain anonymous”. What the use of unnamed sources may be deemed to cost this book in terms of academic rigour, it more than makes up for in the colour and sense of place it gives to the subject. And, while some sources remain unidentified, the book does offer an extensive range of supporting references and a very useful bibliography.

I suspect that future researchers will find Spam: A Shadow History of the Internet a valuable tool in helping to understand the development of spam as an unwanted side effect of networked computing. It demonstrates well the ways in which a relatively small number of imaginative hucksters have forced the evolution of complex and expensive technical defences to protect the integrity of global communications. Add to this a very useful and effective analysis of the bizarre, perhaps unique, economics of spam and you have a book that neatly encapsulates the subject.

It is important to remember that this battle is far from over, and the tools of the spammer are continuing to grow in sophistication, making them increasingly challenging to deal with effectively. Brunton has done a good job: his prose is amusing and refreshingly approachable, and he has delivered a useful and interesting primer for those delving into the relationship between technology, information security and human frailty.

The author

Finn Brunton was “born in Northern California, raised in what amounted to a string of alternative communities - and on the internet, of course”. He lives in Ann Arbor, Michigan, but will move to Manhattan this summer to join the department of media, culture and communication in New York University’s Steinhardt School of Culture, Education and Human Development. “In between,” he adds, “I’ll be living and working in a modified cargo van, wandering around the US.”

He says he will miss Michigan’s “close presence of nature: the hares on lawns on foggy spring mornings, the Huron River, the tamarack swamps, the herons and terns.”

Chief among his mentors is the man to whom Spam, Brunton’s first book, is dedicated. “Gunard Solberg, a very dear friend and inspiration, was a physically adventurous and intellectually meticulous histor-ian and anthropologist, mostly outside academia (his book on Wovoka/Jack Wilson, the Northern Paiute prophet of the Ghost Dance, has just been published posthumously by the Nevada Historical Society).”

Brunton followed a bachelor’s degree in interdisciplinary studies at the University of California, Berkeley with a master’s at the European Graduate School and a PhD at the University of Aberdeen. “EGS remains the icon, for me, of a certain kind of scholarly practice, high-minded in every sense - up against the foot of the glacier, in that piercing sunlight, looking down, as Nietzsche said of mountain walks, on to ‘Man’ and ‘History’. What mattered most was understanding, in depth and in detail, that ideas and engagement are of urgent importance: the alpine setting puts it somewhere between the International Sanatorium Berghof in The Magic Mountain (without the malingering and laziness) and René Daumal’s Mount Analogue (without the fuzzy Surrealism). All that, plus a ping-pong table.”

He observes: “EGS is where I learned to concentrate - and Aberdeen, with quiet silvery rain falling on granite and the North Sea, is where I learned to work…The people I studied under, and with, there guide my steps to this day.”

Karen Shook

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