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Spam: A Cost Of Doing Business

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Virtually anyone who uses an Internet-connected computer these days would probably agree that spam–the annoying unsolicited commercial e-mail that somehow creeps into our mailboxes–is a fact of life.

Like the much-maligned canned lunch meat that bears the same moniker, spam seems to be everywhere in the cyber universe. Most people also seem to be aware that spam hyperlinks–if followed–can put criminals on the royal road to your identity, your company’s business data, or more sensitive personal information–or all of these.

Given the danger, one would think that people would be fairly hostile towards spam and spammers, yet the very ubiquitousness of spam seems to have inured us to its potentially devastating effects.

For example, McAfee, Inc. recently released the results of its S.P.A.M. (Spammed Persistently All Month) Experiment, in which 50 people from around the world surfed the Web “unprotected” for 30 days. As a result, the company concludes that spam “is an immense problem and it’s simply not going away. It’s no longer a question of ‘solving’ it, but one of ‘managing’ it.”

That sounds to me like McAfee, which, ironically, makes anti-spam software, is throwing in the proverbial towel on making any significant headway toward wiping out spam. Instead, the phenomenon just seems to be relegated to a cost-of-doing-business status.

Interestingly, the McAfee press release on this topic doesn’t exactly say how we should “manage” this problem. The solution, presumably, is to buy the company’s anti-spam products, but the implication is that these products will not do one much good in the overall fight against this menace.

McAfee researchers say that spammers are as active as ever; and they are increasingly using psychological tricks to lure Internet users to part with their contact details, identity information and cash.

In this “first experiment of its kind,” the participants from 10 countries received more than 104,000 spam e-mails throughout the course of the experiment, says McAfee. “That’s 2,096 messages each–the equivalent of approximately 70 messages a day.”

Many of the spam messages received were phishing e-mails; e-mails which pose as a trustworthy source to criminally acquire sensitive information such as usernames, passwords and bank account details. Other e-mails carried viruses, and many allowed malware to be silently installed on the computers by persuading participants to surf unsafe Web sites, the company notes.

Significantly, a number of participants note a decrease in their computers’ processing speeds, as well as an increased number of pop-ups, says McAfee.

“Many of our participants noticed that their computers were slowing down, which means that while they were surfing, unbeknownst to them, Web sites were installing malware,” says Jeff Green, senior vice president of McAfee Avert Labs. “In just 30 days there was quite a noticeable change in the system performance of their computers.”

The results of the experiment also reveal a shift away from mass spam e-mails towards more targeted campaigns, says McAfee. Foreign language and social engineering spam are two areas in which participants received a larger than anticipated number of e-mails.

The most popular subject received was financial spam, McAfee adds, a trend which should concern the insurance industry. The company speculated that perhaps spammers were taking advantage of the current personal finance climate and global credit crunch.

All this leaves me asking several questions. Are we, as the McAfee release suggests, supposed to treat such malicious and dangerous attacks as just another (ho-hum) cost of doing business? Should we give up on pushing for legislation to help prevent these intrusions? Should we just focus on limiting the damage?

There’s probably a financial case to be made for blandly accepting this criminal behavior as par for the course, but somehow that just reeks of a slippery slope mentality.

When something is wrong–when it injures business and individuals–we need to fight it, not only for the benefit of those firms and people, but for the benefit of our society as a whole.

Managed? Spam should be vanquished, and every effort should be made to accomplish that, even if the mission is never perfectly completed. It’s the least we can do for those who conduct their business and personal affairs in an ethical manner.


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