In 2004, Bill Gates famously said that the spam problem would be solved by 2006. Well, Bill: It's 2007, and we're still waiting. Everybody makes mistakes. Of course, Mr.
Gates doesn't have a crystal ball, so telling what the future holds for spam is little easier for him than it is for the rest of us. Nonetheless, by looking at the current patterns of spam, we can make some estimates regarding the future of spam. For one thing, statistics show that the problem is set to grow. Spam rates have almost doubled over the past twelve months to over 100 billion spam mails sent per day, and this figure is rising. Spammers have found that affiliate spam is so profitable that they are able to run the risk of legal recourse in their attempts to make money.
In this sense, increased spam laws have largely been a disappointment so far, as they seem to impact far too few spammers. Perhaps, then, the future of spam will be defined by what happens in the legislatures and the courts around the world. CAN-SPAM could just be the beginning, and one day mass, unsolicited mail could be banned outright. Should the continuing problems of botnet viruses and other trojans continue, this isn't quite as far-fetched as it sounds. Spam virus technology, then, is perhaps the most growing part of the spam threat. But surely, as Bill Gates argued, technology exists that can block this.
That's true, but it relies on all computer users being tech-savvy enough to install and maintain it - something that's decidely impossible in the rapidly-expanding world of cyberspace. Indeed, those well-informed enough to protect themselves with spam firewall programs and virus checkers may well be in the minority. So perhaps the solution does not lie with the end user; failing the legal method, perhaps the large technology companies and anti-spam software authors could target the spammers themselves. Perhaps there can be a growth in software that would make spam either virtually impossible, or prohibitively expensive? Indeed, technology in the antispam sector has advanced significantly in the last few years - prompting Gates' notorious remark - and can affect both sender and recipient. To stop spam from being sent, Gates once advocated "charging" mass mailers in computational cycles in order to discourage massive, indiscriminate sending sprees without overly penalising smaller companies.
Simply put, Gates sought to end the days when a spam mailer program could fire off tens of thousands of emails in seconds - instead, each email would take several seconds to send. Small businesses dealing with customers in the hundreds, rather than the millions, would not be hit hard, but spammers would need to invest in computer architecture far beyond what they currently use now. What's more, it would render botnets too slow to be worth the risk.
But surely that runs the risk of alienating legitimate marketing firms, or those companies with huge, self-gathered mailing lists. As these are so powerful, perhaps Gates' idea was too far-fetched. Maybe so; hence, the solution may come from the increased use of verification technology. GoodMail is a popular program for some large companies, who pay the GoodMail Systems company for the privelege of attaching a small token of authenticity to their emails, ensuring that certain co-operative ISPs allow their emails safe passage to the end user's inbox. Putting more responsibility with the user was the Caller ID for E-Mail idea, already piloted in the Hotmail spam filter. This is a spam blacklist technique involving the recognition of certain good/bad IP addresses in email headers, and filing the incoming messages accordingly.
However, for those whose email providers do not set up this facility for them, it can prove difficult; and with increasingly elaborate spamming techniques - from image spam to phishing and beyond - all being sent from a range of IPs courtesy of hacked, zombie PCs, blocklists may soon grow to be unwieldy. So, then, perhaps better spam filtering software is the idea. It's certainly seemed to help in the cases of Gmail and some other webmail providers, whose users still suffer from spam, but less so than those who use no protection at all. However, it's difficult to provide a catch-all solution, particularly as image spam and other interesting methods of spam mailings continue to grow.
Indeed, one thing that's guaranteed in the future of spam is that spamming techniques will grow more and more advanced - and more and more devious, too. Putting prevention aside, it seems that spam will continue to grow not only in our inboxes, but elsewhere. Forum spam is increasingly problematic, particularly on message boards using older versions of board software, or those without Captcha tests upon registration. Mobile spam is also growing, with cell phones now the victim of unwanted mass mailing, particularly in the Far East.
Indeed, the further down the path of the information age we go, it seems that we can neither run nor hide from spam, no matter what Bill Gates thinks on the matter. .
Tom Spanky is an IT manager for 8 years, mostly focused on security related stuff and he is the author of this article on Stop spam. Find more information about Stop spam here.