Computing Applications

Has the Spam War Been Won?

Geeky Ventures Founder Greg Linden

A decade ago, e-mail spam was a dire problem.  Annoyances flooded most inboxes.  Any attempt to read your e-mail started with deleting the crud that had leaked through your defenses. 

Many predicted the problem only would get worse.  A few predicted that e-mail would be dead in just a few years, the filters would be overwhelmed, the war lost, e-mail readers buried under an avalanche of spam.

Today, e-mail spam appears to be a solved problem.  A 2003 study put response rates at 0.005%.  A 2008 study where the authors infiltrated a major spam botnet found response rates had fallen to under 0.00001%, only 28 sales out of 350 million messages sent.  Spam filters appear to have forced down response rates three orders of magnitude in five years.  Spammers have fought back with misspellings, adding additional text to mails, trying to customize each e-mail sent, and many other tricks to evade detection, but their increasingly complicated efforts have not been able to outwit the filters.

My own experience is that e-mail spam has become a non-issue.  Despite prostituting my e-mail addresses undisguised across the internet, despite receiving hundreds of spam messages daily, nearly zero make it to my inbox.  The ones that I do see typically are  borderline spam, companies and small businesses sending to a small list rather than the mass splattering of true e-mail spam.

Amazingly, the drop in response rates from 2003 to 2008 may be close to making spam an unprofitable enterprise.  There is a substantial amount of effort required to attack and manage a botnet of 1M compromised machines that can cheaply send 12M messages per day.  Huge e-mail campaigns that attempt to work around spam filters require sophistication to devise and run.  E-mail address lists have to be purchased and maintained.  It appears to be getting to the point that even massive and complicated spam efforts like the Storm botnet generate surprisingly low revenues for what appears to be the work required. 

What is your own experience with e-mail spam?  Do you think the e-mail spam war been won?  Or are these declarations of victory premature?

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