Spam – the scourge of every e-mail inbox – celebrates its 30th anniversary this weekend.
The first recognisable e-mail marketing message was sent on 3 May, 1978 to 400 people on behalf of DEC – a now-defunct computer-maker. The message was sent via Arpanet – the internet’s forerunner – and won its sender much criticism from recipients.
Gary Thuerk sent the first junk email and it was to publicise new additions to DEC’s System-20 minicomputers. It invited the recipients, all of whom were on Arpanet and lived on the west coast of the US, to go to one of two presentations showing off the capabilities of the System-20. Reaction to the message was swift, with complaints reportedly coming from the US Defense Communications Agency, which oversaw Arpanet, and took Mr Thuerk’s boss to task about it.
Despite Mr Thuerk’s pioneering spam it took many years for unsolicited commercial e-mail to become a nuisance.
In 1993 it was named Spam by Joel Furr – an administrator on the Usenet chat system. Mr Furr reputedly got his inspiration for the name from a Monty Python sketch set in a restaurant whose menu heavily featured the processed meat.
Thirty years on, spam has grown into an underground industry that sends out billions of messages every day. Statistics gathered by the FBI suggest that 75% of net scams snare people through junk e-mail. In 2007 these cons netted criminals more than $239m (£121m). More than 80%-85% of all e-mail is spam or junk and more than 100 billion spam messages are sent every day.
April 1994 saw another pioneering moment in the history of spam when immigration lawyers Canter and Siegel sent a commercial spam message to more than 6,000 Usenet discussion groups. The Canter and Siegel e-mail is widely seen as the moment when the commercialisation of the net began and opened the floodgates that led to the deluge of spam seen today.
The majority of these messages are being sent via hijacked home computers that have been compromised by a computer virus. A lot of modern spam is deliberately malicious, aiming to steal your bank account information or install malware.”