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Spam can.png

My Aunt asked a question the other day about all those unsolicited emails she gets. Emails telling her she can "Make money while she sleeps...", asking her if should would like to earn an extra "$10,000 a month, part time...", or telling her where she can "buy herbal viagra on-line...". She asked, "What are these emails, and how does she stop them?".

I told her they were "spam".

She asked, "what's spam and where does the term come from?" In my usual geek style -- ask a simple question and get a four page answer that may eventually stumbles into the point.

Why are unsolicited emails called spam?

Spam(tm) is Hormel's canned meat product -- made of pork-shoulder & ham (if advertisements are to be believed). It was originally an inexpensive byproduct of meat processing that I affectionately call human pet-food. Some people consider it pink, unattractive and not very nutritious. But it was relatively cheap, has the half-life of plutonium, and it was popular fare for soldiers in WWII -- and many who've tried it, like the stuff.

In the early 1970s, a well known commedy troop named Monty Python, did a skit about Spam.

The summary is that this guy came into a restaurant and tried to order his breakfast, but all the choices have spam in them. Such delicacies as "Spam, spam, spam, spam and eggs".The parton tries to order his breakfast "hold the spam", but to no avail -- the server can't understand why the guy wouldn't want spam. Furthermore everytime the patron used the word "spam", the entire restaurant would break into chorus about "spam, the wonderful spam" and the guy could never make his point.

This skit became popular around the same time that Newsgroups began getting hit with many unattractive and not very nutritious responses (assumably pink). These resonses could be any off topic point or unsolicited solicitations. It was likened to the Monty Python skit, where everytime you tried to have a useful discussion in a newsgroup someone would interrupt and break into a chorus about the wonders of spam. The term stuck.

Once email became popular, many shadier advertisers starting doing direct email to everyone they could find. The term "spam" grew from "any off-topic interruption in a newsgroup", into generally meaning "any unsolicited advertisement or email".

These advertisers do a variety of things to scrape email addresses off the internet. They can have fake sites that ask for email addresses or have arrangements with other sites, some search the newsgroups for any responses, many hunt down anything that might have your information on-line. Many of them buy or trade email lists with each other. Once you're on the Internet, your email address spreads quickly. They don't really know who you are, and may know nothing about you -- but they do have your email address, and they're not afraid to use it.

How do you stop it?

There are few things you can do to stop it -- but most are restrictive and will only slow your addresses progress. There are hundreds of techniques that they use to spam, and figure out addresses, and they are as smart as we are. So it is sort of like asking the question "how do you stop crime" -- the only successful answer would be "the extinction of the human race". So we can play "move" and "counter move" and try to slow it -- but I think spam is here to stay. I just refuse to respond to any unsolicited email, or phone call, and hope that they take the hint and go away.


Written 2001.09.10