Tuesday, July 01, 2003

Every spam is sacred

I sat in a meeting with the CEO of Brightmail yesterday. They handle the anti-spam algorithms for several of the largest ISPs including BT, MSN and so on. They also do corporate deals, although I couldn't tell you for who. Some of the numbers here are astonishing. Enrique mentioned 63 billion emails across the Internet a month and more than 30 billion of those are spam. He mentioned a client who a year ago processed 1 billion mails total/month and now sees more than 1 billion spam a month. That's frightening growth. One of the things that stops me using a mobile device to access my email (apart from the fact that I think I spend enough time on email) is the volume of spam that I get on my private mail address. I'm going to close it down soon and start up a new one - I'll count how long it takes before it gets unusable. As more Internet usage switches back to the pay as you go model (funny really, we went from paying per minute to paying a fixed fee to paying per minute again as we moved from dial-up to one price and then on to GPRS/Wifi hotspots/3G etc). With an anti-spam success rate of between 90% and 94%, there's still far too much scope for spam to get through and clog up my mailbox. Cloudmark does a similar job and already says its saved me more than 10 hours in scan/delete time since I installed it shortly after launch. The US plan to do "opt out" is just plain insane. Europe, for once, understands and wants "opt in". But, all too rapidly, these measures will become redundant as tracing the abusers of any legal framework will be too hard. Ditto the ideas I've heard of charging people 1p/1c to send email - who will you charge? How will you track the money? What If I hack into some network and use that as my base? Never going to work. And, the plain truth is, some people must respond to this spam. I've heard 1 per million. If we reduce that to 1 per 20 million then the spammers up their volumes and send more and more, causing more pain. This is going to be a hugely difficult problem to resolve that is going to need co-ordinated global effort to sort. The track record of that kind of effort is not good so it's pleasing to see yesterday's All Party IT Group taking an interest, debates in the Lords, Stephen Timms speaking on it etc. Once the debates have been had though, the action needs to follow fast. Companies like Brightmail and tools like Cloudmark are going to have to work hard to stay ahead of the threat with ever more clever filters. Otherwise, pretty soon people get turned off email ... and then the response rates to spam drop ... and then it gets less economic. Is that how it works? No, I don't think so. Email is too embedded now. People will put up with it just as have done for a while, so productivity drops and technology's reputation doesn't improve. From email spam, the next trend will be increased text spam to mobile phones as more people figure out how to send this at no cost or at very low cost. I'm just dreading picture spam once the hackers crack how to send those for nothing. It's a short step from there to the mobile phone virus, the one that texts all of your contacts at your expense ... and shuts down the mobile text network with a proliferation of spam in a 24 hour period (after all, the mobile network is not built with the same resilience as the Internet and that has already shown how it can suffer). I've had an email account since about 1986 and, for the first time, I'm starting to dread logging on. That can't be a good sign.

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