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Canning Spam

How pesky e-mails fill your inbox

The Hormel Foods Corporation was understandably disappointed in the choice of the word “spam” to describe unsolicited commercial e-mail back when that decision was popularized without ceremony in the late 1990s. Naturally, the producer of SPAM™ Luncheon Meat (Hormel recommends writing the name of their product in this way to keep intentions clear) wanted to avoid an association between their celebrated canned spiced ham product and the worthless artificially-fabricated garbage that stuffs your inbox.

Actually, the application of that term to junk e-mail has its roots in a 1970 Monty Python sketch about the food, at the conclusion of which members of the troupe sang the word “SPAM” with increasing intensity until it drowned out all other meaningful conversation in the room—the theory being that this is exactly what such messages are doing to the e-mail institution as a whole.

And while it’s easy to forget, junk e-mail is itself pretty old as well—it’s been around and stirring up controversy since long before Viagra. Indeed, the first e-mail chain letter was sent across the nascent Internet in 1982 right as current college seniors were being born. A good benchmark for the spread of spam is the size of various lists of potential targets offered for sale over the years—in 1995 lists of around 2 million e-mail addresses could be purchased, but this number skyrocketed to 7 million in a year, reached 80 million by 1997, and by 2001, with 200 million e-mail addresses, the lists were so large as to be nearly unmanageable even to the spammers that relied upon them. Surely the number of targets has more or less scaled with the size of the Internet itself, but as this makes spamming an increasingly lucrative practice, the net effect has been an ever-increasing density of trash to sift through.

What is spam exactly? Technically (if it has a technical definition) it refers to undesired commercial e-mail. Usually, in practice, it advertises services that are borderline illicit, and sometimes downright illegal or fraudulent. One wildly popular form of spam, commonly referred to as the “Nigerian” or “4-1-9” scam (surely you’ve seen the e-mails—from the ex-wife of late Nigerian president GENERAL SANI ABACHA or what have you, claiming that she’ll give you a $10 million commission just for helping her temporarily store her inheritance in your American bank account), dates back in some form to the 1920s. At that time it involved real letters (with stamps—remember those?) and referred to wealthy Spanish Prisoners rather than Nigerian warlords.

By 1991, the scam was so prevalent online and in paper letters that the Nigerian Government published a statement officially denying any involvement. As of 1997, “successful” applications of this scam were costing gullible Americans something like $100 million annually, and just last month the Boston Herald reported that our own researcher Weldong Xu of Harvard Medical School gave $600,000 which he had collected from friends and colleagues for purported SARS research to 4-1-9 scammers from Lagos, with hopes that he’d earn back a cool $50 million to put back into his work.

Other common forms of spam include offers to acquire prescription drugs (usually not antibiotics or allergy medications) under the table or herbal remedies to certain small problems, the usefulness of which I leave to your significant other to decide.

So what can we do to take back our inboxes? On the technical side of things, Harvard has given us access to some of the best (though still imperfect) spam filtering tools—you can enable the ominously named SpamAssassin for your inbox by typing blockmail at the fas% prompt instead of pine (or, for those of you with no idea what I’m talking about, by going to http://www.fas.harvard.edu/computing/myaccount/). These tools learn from the spam they receive, so they’re always improving as they play a never-ending tit-for-tat with the spammers they attempt to foil.

More importantly, perhaps, the political powers that be are finally (slowly) committing to fighting spam, despite the lobbying power that its originators seem to possess. A new law that went into effect early this year has made certain forms of unwanted e-mail communication illegal—now all spam needs to be opt-out (there must be some way to let a would-be spammer know that you’d like no further communication from them) and certain guidelines have been set regarding the use of misleading subject lines. Some have called the bill inadequate, arguing that it doesn’t actually prohibit anyone from sending out spam, but surely it’s a start: At least one marketer, Phoenix Avatar, which advertised a “hormone product” to hundreds of thousands of unwitting consumers, has been prosecuted under its auspices, on the grounds that, according to the Federal Trade Comission, their product is effectively worthless. The name of the bill? The “CAN-SPAM” Act. Surely Hormel isn’t particularly pleased with the word play.

Matthew A. Gline ’06 is a physics concentrator in Quincy House. His column appears regularly.