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Aug 26, 2021

Today's episode on spam is read by the illustrious Joel Rennich.

Spam is irrelevant or inappropriate and unsolicited messages usually sent to a large number of recipients through electronic means. And while we probably think of spam as something new today, it’s worth noting that the first documented piece of spam was sent in 1864 - through the telegraph. With the advent of new technologies like the fax machine and telephone, messages and unsolicited calls were quick to show up.

Ray Tomlinson is widely accepted as the inventor of email, developing the first mail application in 1971 for the ARPANET. It took longer than one might expect to get abused, likely because it was mostly researchers and people from the military industrial research community. Then in 1978, Gary Thuerk at Digital Equipment Corporation decided to send out a message about the new VAX computer being released by Digital. At the time, there were 2,600 email accounts on ARPANET and his message found its way to 400 of them. That’s a little over 15% of the Internet at the time. Can you imagine sending a message to 15% of the Internet today? That would be nearly 600 million people.

But it worked. Supposedly he closed $12 million in deals despite rampant complaints back to the Defense Department. But it was too late; the damage was done. He proved that unsolicited junk mail would be a way to sell products. Others caught on. Like Dave Rhodes who popularized MAKE MONEY FAST chains in the 1988. Maybe not a real name but pyramid schemes probably go back to the pyramids so we might as well have them on the Internets.

By 1993 unsolicited email was enough of an issue that we started calling it spam. That came from the Monty Python skit where Vikings in a cafe and spam was on everything on the menu. That spam was in reference to canned meat made of pork, sugar, water, salt, potato starch, and sodium nitrate that was originally developed by Jay Hormel in 1937 and due to how cheap and easy it was found itself part of a cultural shift in America. Spam came out of Austin, Minnesota. Jay’s dad George incorporated Hormel in 1901 to process hogs and beef and developed canned lunchmeat that evolved into what we think of as Spam today. It was spiced ham, thus spam.

During World War II, Spam would find its way to GIs fighting the war and Spam found its way to England and countries the war was being fought in. It was durable and could sit on a shelf for moths. From there it ended up in school lunches, and after fishing sanctions on Japanese-Americans in Hawaii restricted the foods they could haul in, spam found its way there and some countries grew to rely on it due to displaced residents following the war. And yet, it remains a point of scorn in some cases. As the Monty Python sketch mentions, spam was ubiquitous, unavoidable, and repetitive.

Same with spam through our email. We rely on email. We need it. Email was the first real, killer app for the Internet. We communicate through it constantly. Despite the gelatinous meat we sometimes get when we expect we’re about to land that big deal when we hear the chime that our email client got a new message. It’s just unavoidable. That’s why a repetitive poster on a list had his messages called spam and the use just grew from there.

Spam isn’t exclusive to email. Laurence Canter and Martha Siegel sent the first commercial Usenet spam in the “Green Card” just after the NSF allowed commercial activities on the Internet. It was a simple Perl script to sell people on the idea of paying a fee to have them enroll people into the green card lottery. They made over $100,000 and even went so far as to publish a book on guerrilla marketing on the Internet. Canter got disbarred for illegal advertising in 1997.

Over the years new ways have come about to try and combat spam. RBLs, or using DNS blacklists to mark hosts as unable to send blacklists and thus having port 25 blocked emerged in 1996 from the Mail Abuse Prevention System, or MAPS. Developed by Dave Rand and Paul Vixie, the list of IP addresses helped for a bit. That is, until spammers realized they could just send from a different IP. Vixie also mentioned the idea of of matching a sender claim to a mail server a message came from as a means of limiting spam, a concept that would later come up again and evolve into the Sender Policy Framework, or SPF for short. That’s around the same time Steve Linford founded Spamhaus to block anyone that knowingly spams or provides services to spammers. If you have a cable modem and try to setup an email server on it you’ve probably had to first get them to unblock your address from their Don’t Route list.

The next year Mark Jeftovic created a tool called filter.plx to help filter out spam and that project got picked up by Justin Mason who uploaded his new filter to SourceForge in 2001. A filter he called SpamAssassin. Because ninjas are cooler than pirates.

Paul Graham, the co-creator of Y Combinator (and author a LISP-like programming language) wrote a paper he called “A Plan for Spam” in 2002. He proposed using a Bayesian filter as antivirus software vendors used to combat spam. That would be embraced and is one of the more common methods still used to block spam. In the paper he would go into detail around how scoring of various words would work and probabilities that compared to the rest of his email that a spam would get flagged.

That Bayesian filter would be added to SpamAssassin and others the next year. Dana Valerie Reese came up with the idea for matching sender claims independently and she and Vixie both sparked a conversation and the creation of the Anti-Spam Research Group in the IETF.

The European Parliament released the Directive on Privacy and Electronic Communications in the EU criminalizing spam. Australia and Canada followed suit.

2003 also saw the first laws in the US regarding spam. The CAN-SPAM Act of 2003 was signed by President George Bush in 2003 and allowed the FTC to regulate unsolicited commercial emails. Here we got the double-opt-in to receive commercial messages and it didn’t take long before the new law was used to prosecute spammers with Nicholas Tombros getting the dubious honor of being the first spammer convicted. What was his spam selling? Porn. He got a $10,000 fine and six months of house arrest.

Fighting spam with laws turned international. Christopher Pierson was charged with malicious communication after he sent hoax emails. And even though spammers were getting fined and put in jail all the time, the amount of spam continued to increase.

We had pattern filters, Bayesian filters, and even the threat of legal action. But the IETF Anti-Spam Research Group specifications were merged by Meng Weng Wong and by 2006 W. Schlitt joined the paper to form a new Internet standard called the Sender Policy Framework which lives on in RFC 7208. There are a lot of moving parts but at the heart of it, Simple Mail Transfer Protocol, or SMTP, allows sending mail from any connection over port 25 (or others if it’s SSL-enabled) and allowing a message to pass requiring very little information - although the sender or sending claim is a requirement.

A common troubleshooting technique used to be simply telnetting into port 25 and sending a message from an address to a mailbox on a mail server. Theoretically one could take the MX record, or the DNS record that lists the mail server to deliver mail bound for a domain to and force all outgoing mail to match that. However, due to so much spam, some companies have dedicated outbound mail servers that are different than their MX record and block outgoing mail like people might send if they’re using personal mail at work. In order not to disrupt a lot of valid use cases for mail, SPF had administrators create TXT records in DNS that listed which servers could send mail on their behalf. Now a filter could check the header for the SMTP server of a given message and know that it didn’t match a server that was allowed to send mail. And so a large chunk of spam was blocked.

Yet people still get spam for a variety of reasons. One is that new servers go up all the time just to send junk mail. Another is that email accounts get compromised and used to send mail. Another is that mail servers get compromised. We have filters and even Bayesian and more advanced forms of machine learning. Heck, sometimes we even sign up for a list by giving our email out when buying something from a reputable site or retail vendor.

Spam accounts for over 90% of the total email traffic on the Internet. This is despite blacklists, SPF, and filters. And despite the laws and threats spam continues. And it pays well. We mentioned Canter & Sigel. Shane Atkinson was sending 100 million emails per day in 2003. That doesn’t happen for free. Nathan Blecharczyk, a co-founder of Airbnb paid his way through Harvard on the back of spam.

Some spam sells legitimate products in illegitimate ways, as we saw with early IoT standard X10. Some is used to spread hate and disinformation, going back to Sender Argic, known for denying the Armenian genocide through newsgroups in 1994. Long before infowars existed. Peter Francis-Macrae sent spam to solicit buying domains he didn’t own. He was convicted after resorting to blackmail and threats. Jody Michael Smith sold replica watches and served almost a year in prison after he got caught.

Some spam is sent to get hosts loaded with malware so they could be controlled as happened with Peter Levashov, the Russian czar of the Kelihos botnet. Oleg Nikolaenko was arrested by the FBI in 2010 for spamming to get hosts in his Mega-D botnet. The Russians are good at this; they even registered the Russian Business Network as a website in 2006 to promote running an ISP for phishing, spam, and the Storm botnet. Maybe Flyman is connected to the Russian oligarchs and so continues to be allowed to operate under the radar. They remain one of the more prolific spammers.

Much is sent by a small number of spammers. Khan C. Smith sent a quarter of the spam in the world until he got caught in 2001 and fined $25 million.

Again, spam isn’t limited to just email. It showed up on Usenet in the early days. And AOL sued Chris “Rizler” Smith for over $5M for his spam on their network. Adam Guerbuez was fined over $800 million dollars for spamming Facebook. And LinkedIn allows people to send me unsolicited messages if they pay extra, probably why Microsoft payed $26 billion for the social network.

Spam has been with us since the telegraph; it isn’t going anywhere. But we can’t allow it to run unchecked. The legitimate organizations that use unsolicited messages to drive business help obfuscate the illegitimate acts where people are looking to steal identities or worse. Gary Thuerk opened a Pandora’s box that would have been opened if hadn’t of done so. The rise of the commercial Internet and the co-opting of the emerging cyberspace as a place where privacy and so anonymity trump verification hit a global audience of people who are not equal. Inequality breeds crime. And so we continually have to rethink the answers to the question of sovereignty versus the common good. Think about that next time an IRS agent with a thick foreign accent calls asking for your social security number - and remember (if you’re old enough) that we used to show our social security cards to grocery store clerks when we wrote checks. Can you imagine?!?!