In one sense, the history of spam is the history of the Internet. It is a history of hackers who have constantly probed the limits of the Net’s capabilities to enable the medium to do their bidding in delivering all manner of electronic junk messaging. And it is also a tale of the scientists who have fought a constantly losing battle to try to stop them and, in the course of doing so, have helped shape the evolution of the Internet as a commercial medium.
What follows is a long chapter from a new book by Finn Brunton, a professor at the University of Michigan, that recounts the ceaseless battle of spammer vs. scientist. The book, as a whole, details the entire sweep of spam history, from the early pre-commercial era (through 1995), on to the frenetic cowboy years (“Nigerian Prince” fraud and “pump-and-dump” schemes) until 2003 and the advent of spam legislation, followed by the subsequent globalization, criminalization and militarization that occurred from 2003 to 2010.
The chapter you are about to read, broken into four segments that will run today through Friday recounts the changes in the spam ecosystem after 2003 when, to deal with software filters and the new legal prohibitions, spammers created elaborate automated networks in some of the most far-flung regions of the globe to enable them to practice their trade unhindered. It turns out as well that these networks are becoming a linchpin of the inchoate cyberwarfare waged by national governments.
As Brunton notes in the introduction, spam is a product of our society, the work of “programmers, con artists, cops, lawyers, bots and their botmasters, scientists, pill merchants, social media entrepreneurs, marketers, hackers, identity thieves, sysadmins, victims, pornographers, do-it-yourself vigilantes, government officials, and stock touts. He also phrases it slightly differently—and even more deliciously—elsewhere in the intro: “a remarkable cast of postnational anarchists, baronial system administrators, visionary protocol designers, community-building ‘process queens,’ technolibertarian engineers, and a distributed mob of angry antispam activists.”
This book is a gem. The goings-on of the twisted personages who populate cyberpunk lit have nothing on the ingenious scheming of the spammers and the scientists dedicated to shutting them down. Read here and in days to come about this fascinatingly bizarre subterranean cyberworld. This first section deals with the elaborate, almost monastic scholarship that went into creating spam filters. (Links to previous excerpted segments will be available once new material is posted.)
TABLE OF CONTENTS
THE VICTIM CLOUD
Filtering: Scientists and Hackers
Making Spam Scientific, Part 1
Scientists building filters try to get a handle on the “etymologically restless” nature of spam by creating text corpuses for software analysis. The search is on for the equivalent of a spam calorie
Loot from a Scandal
Researchers use internal communications from the disgraced Enron to try to fashion spam filters
Making Spam Hackable
Software maven Paul Graham’s “Plan for Spam"
Reprinted from Spam: A Shadow History of the Internet, by Finn Brunton. Copyright © 2013, by Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Used with permission of the publisher, the MIT Press.