Tuesday, November 18, 2014

No Obligation to Satisfy Your Lover and Lose Pounds - The Origins of Spam

Amy wants to sell me Viagra. So do Shannon and Roy. Terrance offers a male penile enlargement that sounds both uncomfortable and redundant. And Arnold promises I can look younger and lose weight in just three weeks with human growth hormone.

I’ll need all that and more if Sandie and Krys have their way with me. They’re proposing things performed by hot teenagers of both sexes that would make a Singapore whore blush. Of course, the girls and boys are going to need someone who can keep them in style, but Jonathon has that covered for me too. Debt reduction, refinancing, a world of winnings at the Lucky Nugget Casino, and a new career working out of my home are all but a mouse click away.

That’s just this morning’s spam. I get an average fifteen to twenty unsolicited email messages every day, which translates to about 5,000 clicks on the “X” button per year. That small amount is considered a laughable minor annoyance by most of my Net acquaintances. Missy, a researcher on Google Answers, once claimed one of her email accounts was receiving 3,000 pieces of spam a week before she finally closed it. But everyone – everyone – gets spam, and gets lots of it, unless they’re extremely protective of their email address.

THE BIRTH OF SPAM

“THERE IS NO WAY TO PEACE. PEACE IS THE WAY.”
– Opening line from the first known piece of spam, an antiwar message sent to over a thousand people at M.I.T. in 1971


Tom Van Vleck, an engineer and research scientist, claims to have seen the first instance of spam over 30 years ago at M.I.T. Van Vleck built M.I.T.’s email system and ran the programming group for the school in 1971. As he writes on his Web site, “…I was mighty displeased one day … to discover that one of my team had abused his privilege to send a long anti-war message to every user… I pointed out to him that this was inappropriate and possibly unwelcome, and he said, ‘But this is important!’”

If you agree with Van Vleck’s definition of spam, any mass email message sent to a large group of unwilling recipients, then he may be right that the M.I.T. anti-war email was its first instance. However, most people think of spam as commercial messages hawking anything from weight-loss pills to hard-core porn. A salesman named Gary Thuerk was the one who opened the Pandora’s Box of commercial spam seven years after the M.I.T. anti-war message. If the Pandora’s Box analogy holds true, and the last thing that emerged from Thuerk’s box was also Hope, it has yet to have made much headway against spam.

THE GODFATHER OF SPAM

“DIGITAL WILL BE GIVING A PRODUCT PRESENTATION OF THE NEWEST MEMBERS OF THE DECSYSTEM-20 FAMILY…WE INVITE YOU TO COME SEE THE 2020 AND HEAR ABOUT THE DECSYSTEM-20 FAMILY AT THE TWO PRODUCT PRESENTATIONS WE WILL BE GIVING IN CALIFORNIA THIS MONTH…”
– Excerpt from the first known piece of commercial spam. Sent by THUERK at DEC-MARLBORO on May 1, 1978

It’d be unfair to call Thuerk the father of spam. He’s more like the unlucky guy who first had the idea to inhale smoke from a burning weed, or maybe he’s more like Alfred Nobel. Call him the Godfather of Spam—the unwilling patron of a bad boy constantly getting into trouble. Thuerk was just the first to invent something that almost everyone—at least everyone who isn’t making money from it—wishes hadn’t been invented at all. But if it hadn’t been Thuerk it would have been someone else. There’s always another Pandora willing to open the box.

In 1978 Thuerk was a sales representative with Digital Equipment Corporation, also known as DEC, a now-defunct computer company based in Massachusetts. DEC was well known on the East Coast in 1978, but had little visibility elsewhere. Known within DEC as an aggressive marketer, Thuerk was given the task of expanding DEC’s presence in the West, especially California. Thuerk decided to hold a series of marketing “open house” to promote a new computer the company was releasing, and came up with the idea to advertise through a message to all 393 people who then had email addressees on the West Coast.

Thuerk now works for Hewlett-Packard, which bought out Compaq in 2001, which had in turn absorbed DEC in the `90s. “Actually, I still think it was a pretty good idea,” Thuerk told me when I called him at his office. For someone who’s been the target of bad vibrations for over 20 years, Thuerk is a surprisingly cheerful and talkative guy. If he has one tic about spam, it is that he dislikes using – or hearing – the word. He prefers the phrase, “commercial email.”

“It was great marketing, very targeted,” he says. “I didn’t think of it as all that different from sending a flyer through regular mail. You have to understand that the only people who had email in the seventies were people connected to the ARPAnet.”

ARPAnet was an early version of today’s Internet and Web, created and controlled by the military, and connecting a few thousand scientists and engineers at universities and government labs. DEC’s new computer was the first to have ARPAnet software built in, something which should be something of interest, Thuerk thought, to everyone in the ARPAnet community.

The reaction to his email, Thuerk admits, was mixed.

“We did get complaints,” he says. “A major from the Department of Defense called my boss the next day and chewed him out royally. A few days later the major sent out a blanket email saying ‘no more commercial messages.’”

That message read in part, in all capital letters:

“ON 2 MAY 78 DIGITAL EQUIPMENT CORPORATION (DEC) SENT OUT AN ARPANET MESSAGE ADVERTISING THEIR NEW COMPUTER SYSTEMS. THIS WAS A FLAGRANT VIOLATION OF THE USE OF ARPANET AS THE NETWORK IS TO BE USED FOR OFFICIAL U.S. GOVERNMENT BUSINESS ONLY. APPROPRIATE ACTION IS BEING TAKEN TO PRECLUDE ITS OCCURRENCE AGAIN.”

As well as getting the date wrong (Thuerk had a DEC technician send the message out on the first of May, although some recipients didn’t receive it until several days later), the major was also not the best predictor of the future, as time and increasing swarms of spam would tell. Although never trying it again himself, Thuerk was satisfied with what he had accomplished with this first piece of spam.

“It worked pretty well,” Thuerk says. “We received a lot of positive reaction and I made some new sales contacts. All in all, I thought it was a success.”

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Thuerk is also complacent about the monster his demon child has grown into. “At least 80 percent of the commercial email I get is useless,” he acknowledges. “But the problem is that it’s bad marketing, not that it’s marketing. It’s just overwhelming. Somebody will eventually come up with a way to target the messages only to the people who want to see them.”

I hang up the phone and wonder about a world where people would welcome daily email about breast reductions and penis enlargements.

SPAM vs. spam
“We do not object to use of this slang term to describe unsolicited commercial mail… [but] if the term is to be used, it should be used in all lower-case letters to distinguish it from our trademark SPAM, which should be used with all uppercase letters.”
– Notice on the “SPAM Website, brought to you by the makers of the SPAM Family of products”


As almost everyone knows by now, the term “spam” itself comes from a 1970 Monty Python routine about a restaurant where it’s impossible to get anything without spam – and lots of it – included, “You mean spam, spam, spam, spam, spam, spam, spam, spam, spam, spam, spam, and spam?” a waitress asks at one point.

Although probably wishing that the Monty Python team had picked on Jell-O rather than their product, the owner of the SPAM brand name, Hormel Foods, publicly seems more concerned with the possibility of losing its unique trademark than of its association with unwanted email. Emphasizing the difference in an almost comic notice on their Web site, Hormel states that their SPAM is not email spam. “We coined this term in 1937,” Hormel plaintively notes. “…Ultimately, we are trying to avoid the day when the consuming public asks, ‘Why would Hormel Foods name its product after junk e-mail?’”

The word started appearing as computer jargon in the early eighties. In tech-speak, “spamming” was used to describe flooding a computer with so much data that it would eventually freeze and crash. Among on-line chat room junkies, “spam” could either mean unwanted, verbose messages from new members, or as reaction against them: those bored with endless newbie chatter would sometimes use an automated program that would endlessly type the word, “spam”, to stop the conversation.

“PERSONS BORN IN MOST COUNTRIES QUALIFY, MANY FOR FIRST TIME.”
– Excerpt from the Canter and Siegel “Green Card” spam

“Spam” as a term to describe unwanted online advertising came into general use in 1994. A husband-and-wife lawyer team from Arizona, Laurence Canter and Martha Siegel, hired a programmer to post an advertisement on every USENET newsgroup flogging their services to help illegal foreign workers obtain green cards. An early version of online conferencing, USENET participants could discuss everything from UNIX computer programming to the trading of erotic versions of Disney cartoon art. You posted to a USENET discussion group through email, and received other postings and replies the same way; either individually or in daily digests.

At the time there were several thousand USENET groups, and each one of them received the Canter and Siegel advertisement, usually not once, but several times. Since many USENET participants often subscribed to dozens of newsgroups, their mailboxes were flooded with hundreds of the same message. “Spam” quickly became the favored online term for the Canter and Siegel “Green Card” solicitation, and went on to be applied to anything broadcast repeatedly and annoyingly in USENET groups.

Canter and Siegel also became infamous as the first totally unrepentant spammers. Even though their answering machine, fax, and email were flooded with complaints and threats, Canter and Siegel increased their spamming, happily gave media interviews, announced that they were available as consultants to others who wanted to post USENET ads, and ultimately self-published a book with the spam-like title of, “How to Make a Fortune on the Information Superhighway: Everyone's Guerrilla Guide to Marketing on the Internet and Other On-Line Services.”

STEMMING THE FLOOD

Canter and Siegel faded back into obscurity after the publication of their book, but their experiment taught rogue programmers that mass e-mailing software, which had previously been used mostly to handle large mailing lists, could easily be perverted to send junk email. Today it’s dangerous to disclose your email address anywhere. Software that harvests email addresses from forum postings, captured from Web sites, even stolen from supposedly secure databases, has come into common use by spammers.

In a March 2003 study, the Center for Democracy and Technology (CDT), a non-profit Internet organization, concluded that e-mail addresses posted on Web sites or in newsgroups attract the most spam. The study also notes, “For the most part, companies that offered users a choice about receiving commercial e-mails respected that choice. Most of the major Web sites to which we provided e-mail addresses respected the privacy choices we made -- when a choice was made available to us.”

Can you avoid spam? Probably not, especially if you’re already receiving it. Spam lists propagate faster than a red worm farm, and once your address is in a spam database it will probably be there forever. But to protect yourself, the CDT study recommends:

1) Disguise your email address if used publicly. The study notes that their tests received the most spam just by placing an e-mail address at the bottom of a web page. If you must use your primary email address, make it invisible or unusable to automated programs, while still human-decipherable.

2) Use multiple email addresses. Establish alias email addresses specifically for newsgroups, forums, or Web postings. Make each address a little different and you’ll soon be able to track who’s providing your address to the spammers.

3) Use a filter. Most email services now offer some type of spam filtering, with varying degrees of success. If you’re inclined to filter spam yourself, you can install a tool such as MailWasher (http://www.mailwasher.net/), an email checker that can eliminate both spam and viruses before they ever reach your mailbox.

WE HAVE SPAM, SPAM, and SPAM
Lawsuits, better filtering and blocking software, legislation, whatever is brought against them, spammers have shown a resilience that makes it unlikely they’ll ever be totally brought under control. Spammers are like viruses – they adapt to survive. And like a virus, we may have to learn to tolerate the annoyance of spam, like the occasional summer cold.

Somewhere in Colorado, the godfather of spam is working at his computer. A soft chime tells him of incoming email. He glances at a subject line and moves the cursor to the “Delete” button. Another one of the brood he first created in 1978 disappears back into the ether. And Gary Thuerk smiles.

###


NOTES

The bulk of the research for this article – as well as the excerpts from the early spam messages – came from Brad Templeton’s most excellent Web page, “Reflections on the 25th Anniversary of Spam” at:

http://www.templetons.com/brad/spam/spam25.html

I highly recommend it for those interested in a more detailed history of spam.

The full Center for Democracy & Technology’s March 2003 report, “Why Am I Getting All This Spam?” can be found at:

http://www.cdt.org/speech/spam/030319spamreport.shtml

Thanks to Gary Thuerk for his kindness and for giving me the time to interview him by phone.

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