Slicing the Ham From the Spam

3 min read

Artwork: Jonny Mendelsson

Despite the CAN-SPAM Act passed by the U.S. Congress in late 2003 and Bill Gates's recent assertion that Microsoft has the "magic solution" that will solve the spam problem by 2006, the spam tsunami shows no signs of abating. According to Brightmail Inc., the San Francisco-based antispam software company, the percentage of e-mails determined to be spam rose from 42 percent in February 2003 to 60 percent in January 2004. Instead of descending into spam rage , the silver-lining seekers among us take to the high ground to look for something, anything, that's positive in the whole mess.

Well, here's something: the lexical radar positively sizzles with spam-related sightings as the spammers send out their barfmail , the antispammers try to stop them, and we hapless users spend inordinate chunks of our days deleting the stuff.

Those of us whose in-boxes are polluted throughout the day with this online pestilence are fighting back by employing filters that automatically trash incoming missives with subject lines containing words and phrases such as "you're a winner," "free money," or a simple "Hi." Unfortunately, these filters sometimes corral legitimate messages, or false positives . Because Spam, the original mystery meat, is a kind of "fake" ham and because legitimate messages are "real" compared with spam messages, people have taken to calling them ham .

Other spam types include fram , spam messages sent by your friends or family, and spim (or spIM ), spam sent via an instant messaging system--hence the synonyms instant spam , messenger spam , IM spam , and IM marketing . Bloggers who have automatic commenting systems now have to deal with a new plague: blog spam , or comment spam . This is a comment that comes with an innocuous message, such as "I agree with this," and a link to a spam site or to something more sinister. This is similar to picospam, a bare-bones spam message that contains only a single image or a one-line sales pitch along with a link to a Web site.

Heaven forbid that you actually click on a picospam's link or respond in any way to a spam message, because then you'll get S4L : spam for life. You can also get S4L by falling into a spamtrap , a check box on an online form that's set by default to "Send me e-mail" in the hopes that most users will miss it and will thus give permission to be spammed.

The purpose of picospam is to ensure that the spammer's message sneaks past any filter in the way. Spam masters have learned that antispam researchers are increasingly hip to their tricks. A straight sales pitch will be flagged as being too spammy --its spam DNA will be too easily recognized, particularly by the sophisticated Bayesian filters, which can be trained to recognize what's spam and what isn't. (Bayesian analysis predicts the probability of a future occurrence by using information gleaned from past experience.) To reduce the overall spamminess of their missives, bulk mailers are adding a patch of random words to each message. This is called a word salad or a hash buster . Hashing is a spam-filter technique that compares an incoming message with known spam messages.

The word "spam" has become so common and so pervasive that we're now seeing it used in contexts other than the Internet. For example, if you live in any reasonably large town or city, then you've probably seen street spam, advertisements posted on telephone poles, traffic lights, and other public areas. Street spam is also called vertical litter . It's an example of a more general scourge called bandit signs , illegal commercial signs posted in a public area. Then there's ticker spam , a small company's press release that includes the name and ticker symbol of a major but unrelated company. The idea behind this stunt is to ensure that the smaller firm's press release is seen by investors or analysts who search for releases containing the larger company's ticker symbol.

The recent spam surge is, of course, merely the continuation of a long-standing trend, as the amount of spam clogging the Net's e-mail arteries continues to grow alarmingly. Solutions are hard to come by, but we can all start by practicing e-mail hygiene , principles and practices that reduce (or, at least, don't increase) spam. For instance: never respond to spam, and never visit a site mentioned in a spam. And, if you use Microsoft Outlook, turn off its preview pane when viewing suspicious messages, which might contain a Web bug, an invisible image embedded in an HTML-formatted e-mail that confirms the message has been read and the address is valid and ripe for more spam. Oh, and tell your friends and family to stop with the fram, already.

This article is for IEEE members only. Join IEEE to access our full archive.

Join the world’s largest professional organization devoted to engineering and applied sciences and get access to all of Spectrum’s articles, podcasts, and special reports. Learn more →

If you're already an IEEE member, please sign in to continue reading.

Membership includes:

  • Get unlimited access to IEEE Spectrum content
  • Follow your favorite topics to create a personalized feed of IEEE Spectrum content
  • Save Spectrum articles to read later
  • Network with other technology professionals
  • Establish a professional profile
  • Create a group to share and collaborate on projects
  • Discover IEEE events and activities
  • Join and participate in discussions