Spam Wars – Rise of the Spam

Spam is one of the biggest problems to Internet users these days. It is not as malicious as other online threats, but it is very frustrating to always re-define spam filters and to delete all that unwanted e-mail. This is the first part in the series of articles, where I will try to look on the spam trough several different perspectives. For the opening article, what would be better than to talk about history of spam.

The making of Spam

SPAM is a registered trademark of Hormel Foods. The name it self came from their food product line: Shoulder Pork and hAM SPiced hAM. The biggest step in making SPAM an evil word was the legendary crew from UK’s hit series Monty Python’s Flying Circus. In of their cult episodes they presented The SPAM Sketch. It went something like this:

(Guy enters a dining room wanting something for breakfast)

Mr. Bun: Morning.

Waitress: Morning.

Mr. Bun: Well, what you got?

Waitress: Well, there’s egg and bacon; egg, sausage and bacon; egg and spam; egg, bacon and spam; egg, bacon, sausage and spam; spam, bacon, sausage and spam; spam, egg, spam, spam, bacon and spam; spam, sausage, spam, spam, spam, bacon, spam, tomato and spam; spam, spam, spam, egg and spam; (Vikings start singing in background) spam, spam, spam, spam, spam, spam, baked beans, spam, spam, spam and spam.

Vikings: Spam, spam, spam, spam, lovely spam, lovely spam.

From when this sketch was shown on the TV, spam started to be a substitute word for something that is always repating and in its repeating becomes boring.

If we look at Merriam-Webster dictionary for the word spam:

Main Entry: spam

Pronunciation: ‘spam

Function: noun

Etymology: from a skit on the British television series Monty Python’s Flying Circus in which chanting of the word Spam (trademark for a canned meat product) overrides the other dialogue

Date: 1994

: unsolicited usually commercial E-mail sent to a large number of addresses

Spam historical moments:

1) MUD

Let’s do the introduction to MUD. It stands for Multi-User Dungeon, Multi-User Domain, or Multi-User Dimension. MUD is an online environment where multiple users are logged on and interacting with one and other. Brad’s research of spam origins brought him to the MUD community in the late 1980’s. The term spamming got used to apply to a few different behaviours in those circles. One was to flood the computer with too much data to crash it. Another was to “spam the database” by having a program create a huge number of objects, rather then creating them by hand.

The term was sometimes used to mean flooding a chat session with a bunch of lines of text inserted by a an automatic program or just using the content of the desired file.

2) DEC spam

This was the first commercial spam, and it took place in 1978. That year DEC announced a new computer entitled DEC-20. As an extension to their marketing campaign, they got a hold of great number of ARPANET addresses from the people situated on the west coast of United States of America, and sent their marketing brochure to all those addresses they had. Finally, ARPANET saw this as an offence of their policy and a message was sent out, to remind people that this is not the way and that it won’t be tolerated in the future.

As I read few of the old spam related threads, there is a transcript that shows that even young Richard Stallman was defending spam in his reactions to DEC spam.

3) jj@cup.portal.com spam

This spam is noted as the first spam that hit the USENET groups. About 14 years ago (24.05.1988) Rob Noha, using the account JJ@cup.portal.com sent a message titled “HELP ME!” to a great number of available news groups. Thanks to Google, his message can be still read online:

“Hi. I just finished my junior year in college, and now I’m faced with a major problem. I can’t afford to pay for my senior year. I’ve tried everything. I can’t get any more student loans, I don’t qualify for any more scholarships, and my parents are as broke as am I. So as you can see, I’ve got a major problem. But as far as I can see, there is only one solution, to go forward. I’ve come along way, and there is no chance in hell that I’m going to drop out now! I’m not a quiter, and I’m not going to give up.

4) March 30 ARMM Massacre

Richard E. Depew is according to Wired’s article, regarded as Usenet’s major bincanceler (for removing binary files from nonbinary newsgroups) was connected with 1993 ARMM spam. He advanced the idea of semi-moderating the USENET groups, cancelling some posts that weren’t written according to the rules. He developed a software, which main purpose was to help him do the moderation. Then something went wrong – his ARMM tool had a bug, so when he started it it sent couple hundreds of messages to the “appropriate” news.admin.policy news group. As Brad Templeton noted – “The very day ARMM was run, Joel Furr, as far as I can tell, was the first to call a spam a spam”.

This was a trip to the memory lane for someone, and just a bunch of boring or interesting facts for others. Brad Templeton did a great research on Spam Etymology, and his study is the main reference for the mentioned moments in spam history. Keith Lynch runs a great spam related timeline, and the whole list can be found in the References section. You can learn lot of interesting information from the timeline:

June 1995 – Two coined words appeared – spamvertise (to advertise via spam) and spamware (spamming software)

August 1995 – List of 2 million email addresses is offered for sale

October 1995 – Mailboxes for abuse related contacts are opening (abuse@provider)

June 1997 – FTC spam hearing (more information)

July 1997 – news.admin.net-abuse.email starts with its work

October 1997 – RBL (Realtime Blackhole List) of spam sites appears. It is run by Paul Vixie.

December 1997 – List of 80 million email addresses offered for sale

May 1998 – UUNET (large Internet Service Provider) becomes a major spam source

July 1998 – List of 91 million email addresses offered for sale

Novemeber 1998 – Dotless numeric web sites (e.g. http://3448157907/xx12) are being used to make tracing harder.

June 2000 – Argentina (its TLD .ar) becomes a major spam source

November 2000 – Taiwan (.tw) becomes the spam capital of the world

May 2001 – UUNET finally ceases being a major spam source

References: