A Brief History of Spam

Once upon a time, the word “spam” conjured images of a canned, processed meat pro- duct. But since the dawning of the internet age, the word has taken a completely different meaning — junk email. Both, however, can leave a bad taste in your mouth.

Digital spam is at best annoying and at worst dangerous, extorting money and sensitive in- formation from unwitting people and businesses. Despite the vast majority of junk email being blocked by sophisticated artificial intelligence systems before it ever reaches your inbox, the infamous “Nigerian Prince” scams still rake in about $700,000 a year in the Unit- ed States alone, according to data from the Better Business Bureau’s Scam Tracker.

As the internet has evolved, so has spam, from opinion spam and fake reviews to social media spam spreading false news. Facebook alone has said it deleted 1.23 billion spam posts in the third quarter of 2018.

“The fight against spam is a constant arms race,” said Emilio Ferrara, a research team leader at USC Viterbi’s Information Sciences Institute and assistant professor of computer science, specializing in computational social science. In his recent paper, “The History of Digital Spam,” Ferrara tracks the evolution of digital spam and explores its complex and of- ten surprising history. He believes it is the duty BRIEF of the computing community to enact policies and research programs to fight current and
new forms of spam.

The first case of email spam is attributed to Dig- ital Equipment Corp. and circulated to 400 users of ARPANET, the precursor to the modern internet.

A growing number of emails are spam. Web platforms and ISPs start investing in spam- filtering techniques.

The first mass email campaign comes from a company offering immigration-related services. After a backlash, the firm went out of business, and one of the partners was even disbarred. The term “spam” is coined, based on the now- legendary Monty Python’s Flying Circus sketch, where a crowd of Vikings sings progressively louder choruses of “SPAM! SPAM! SPAM!”

Web content spam and link farms are common forms of spamdexing, the manipulation of web search result rankings.

The rise of Facebook, Twitter and Reddit provides new opportunities for spammers to reach billions of social media users. E-commerce giants including Amazon and Alibaba fight fake reviews and spam that manipulates product popularity by opinion.

Phishing — essentially social engineering and disguise — helps attackers trick victims into revealing sensitive information. Ransomware is used to extort money from victims.

Spam websites deliberately propagate false news related to politics, public health and social issues.

Systems based on AI can manipulate reality, re-creating anyone’s face or voice with almost pinpoint accuracy. In the future, these technologies may be abused by well-resourced spammers to create AI systems pretending to be human.