January/February 2003  Volume 29, Issue 1
January/February 2003
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E-Definitions: It's a Worldwide Computing Scourge
by Mark Tamminga
 

E-mail ARPANET, the military precursor to the Internet, was never supposed to be a personal communications medium. Its sole initial purpose was to allow hideously expensive computers to share hideously expensive resources. Even that whole "survive nuclear war" thing was really just a spin-off of the main resource-sharing purpose.

But because the design was so elegant and simple and the people involved were so smart and inventive, unintended consequences emerged early. In 1971, Ray Tomlinson, one of those smart people, came up with a crude little program called SNDMSG that let computer operators send messages to one another-as long as they were all working on the same computer. All the program really did was allow users to add text to the end of a file that others could then read. Big deal.

Tomlinson, however, was also working hard on resource sharing, which was, after all, the main point. He was given the job of tweaking CYPNET, a very early computer-to-computer file sharing utility, which was being used to allow the dozen or so ARPANET computers to actually share things.

Looking at SNDMSG and CYPNET one day, he saw that by combining elements of both programs, he would be able to send a message from one ARPANET computer to another. The separate machines he first tried this on happened to be side by side, but he was tinkering and needed to know the results right away. By his modest account, the first e-mail message ever sent between two different computers was "qwertyuiop." That's right, a roll of the fingers across the top row of alpha-keys. Not exactly the portentousness of Morse's first telegraph message, "What hath God wrought!" But Tomlinson had no clue that he had come up with something Really Big. He just thought it was neat.

It turned out to be so neat that two years after Tomlinson released his invention on ARPANET, 75 percent of all network traffic was devoted to e-mail. Resource sharing was quickly shunted aside, as the human reality of a new form of communication swamped the best efforts of those who wanted to stick to business.

Spam Shoot forward to 1994. The Internet was emerging on the broader public scene and e-mail promised to become a boon to far-flung businesses and families. Then on April 12, immigration lawyers Lawrence Cantor and Martha Seigel succumbed to the dark side of e-mail's potential: They bombed 6,000 Usenet groups with offers to help would-be immigrants navigate through the free Green Card lottery for 95 bucks a head. They had just sent the first unsolicited commercial e-mail, and life has been grim in e-mail land ever since.

Hormel, the makers of real SPAM-the company strongly suggests you use all capitals when referring to the actual luncheon meat (6 billion cans sold since 1937)-had no idea that its prized spiced ham brand was about to be heisted by one of the nastiest unintended consequences of ubiquitous e-mail. But in the late '70s, a Monty Python sketch involving singing Vikings and a restaurant that serves almost nothing but SPAM drew the attention of early computer geeks, who saw the humor as a fitting metaphor for annoying repetition. They decided that anything that gunked up their computers would be deemed spam (now lowercase). Cantor and Seigel's e-mail was a huge spam and was publicly labeled such by a host of critics. The term thus entered broader popular culture.

A vague annoyance at first, spam has since roared to the foreground as a major worldwide computing scourge. Here's a scary fact from Brightmail, Inc: Spam made up 8 percent of all e-mail traffic in September 2001; it made up 35 percent by July 2002.

Spam Filters A trend like that has awful implications. When the first task of the day becomes the bulk deletion of misleading, hateful or vulgar e-mail, this wonderful new way of communicating rapidly loses its luster for the user. Grasping wildly for a fix, many begged for a raft of stiff anti-spam laws. But legislative attacks on spam are inherently compromised by the worldwide reach of the Internet. Already waves of spam are generated out of Asia-so much so that companies are now setting up blacklists that simply block all e-mail from countries like China and Korea.

So what about a technical fix? Well, mechanical filter lists based on the appearance or source of incoming e-mail have proved heavy-handed and ineffective. Spammers have caught on quickly and randomly altered elements of their messages-including faked "From:" addresses-to come in low under the radar.

More promising is collaborative e-mail filtering, as demonstrated by Cloudmark's Spamnet (free at www.cloudmark.com). By installing Spamnet, you become a member of the Spamnet community. If enough Spamnetters mark an e-mail as objectionable, it gets filtered. If the community is large enough, most of the bad stuff coming in gets caught. Users report a 70 to 90 percent reduction in spam with the use of this well-designed tool. Other products, such as SpamAssassin (www.deersoft.com), use a complex rating system, a "white list" of permitted e-mail sources generated from your Outlook contacts and user-definable rules to ensure that only good e-mail gets to you.

Sadly, spam is just too easy and too cheap to send. Ever-more sophisticated filters should make the problem suck less, but spam is likely to be with us always. It may be that our only option is to learn to cope.

Mark Tamminga ( mark.tamminga@gowlings.com) practices law and fiddles with software at Gowling Lafleur Henderson LLP in Toronto.