At 30, Spam Going Nowhere Soon

It's the 30th anniversary of those annoying penis enlargement e-mails you get in your inbox. Andrea Seabrook takes a look at the three decades of spam — from weight loss pills to fake Rolexes to Nigerian princes who need your help.

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ANDREA SEABROOK, host:

We take a moment now to mark a most inauspicious anniversary. Thirty years of a thorn in our virtual side.

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Mr. BRAD TEMPLETON (Chairman, Electronic Frontier Foundation): Today we call junk e-mail spam, which is also, of course, the name of the pork luncheon meat product made by Hormel Food.

Unidentified Man #2: Egg and Spam, egg, bacon and Spam.

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Mr. TEMPLETON: I'm Brad Templeton and I've been on the Internet for a long time. I'm currently chairman of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, and I've become a bit of a historian for…

Unidentified Man: Spam, spam, spam, spam, spam, spam, baked beans, spam…

Mr. TEMPLETON: Spam has been around actually longer than people think. The first spam was sent 30 years ago today.

Mr. GARY TURK: I'm Gary Turk, the father of spam, the grandfather of spam, the original spammer. One of the guys called me padre, and back in 1978 I sent the first e-mail spam to 400 unsuspecting people.

Mr. TEMPLETON: To advertise a new computer he was selling to people on the West coast. Now, he had e-mail access and he decided…

Mr. TURK: Let's just send them all e-mail. So, I went through the Arpanet directory, which was like a printed phone book.

Mr. TEMPLETON: In those days it was called the Arpanet rather than the Internet. But the principle was the same.

Mr. TURK: There were about 2,600 people on the Arpanet that time. And I checked off about 400 names and I composed the invitation to come see a demo of the new product.

Mr. TEMPLETON: Well, this got people so upset that there wasn't any more spam for probably about ten years. But as the Net grew and more people got on it, suddenly people thought, hey, I could exploit this to average highs - my cause, my products, my religion, whatever - and so spam started coming back.

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Mr. TEMPLETON: Now, it hadn't gotten the name spam yet. That was not going to happen for about 15 years after the first spam. A man named Joel Fur was the first person to actually take the word and use it to refer to an advertisement on the Net.

Mr. JOEL FUR: My name is Joel Fur. I am the first person to use the term spam in a format that was actually documented and recorded. And in some sense I've been described as the person who coined the term.

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Unidentified Man #2: (Singing) Likeable spam, likeable (unintelligible)…

Mr. FUR: In the early days of the Internet, usage of the Net was restricted primarily to people who worked at or were students at universities. Being university students, we were all very familiar with Monty Python.

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Unidentified Man #2: (Singing) (Unintelligible)…

Mr. FUR: And in those days you could log in and take part on Xed-based role-playing systems. It was all taxed. It was just a lot of people typing all at once. And when you would have 100 or more people all logged into these systems all at the same time, it could be very hard to follow what people were typing. It was like being in a room full of people all talking at once.

And consequently whenever it got really noisy online, somebody would eventually start just typing, spam, spam, spam, spam, spam…

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Unidentified Man #2: (Singing) Spam…

Mr. FUR: And that was something completely different.

Mr. JOHN REED (Spam House Project): I'm John Reed with the Spam House Project, the volunteer investigator. And I've been tracking spammers and the techniques they use for several years. The current way spam is done in the world is different than it used to be. Rather than small individuals sending out spam for their homegrown industry or project or scam, it is now mostly controlled by large gangs. In the last five years, spammers have turned to using infected computers, virus-infected computers, called bots.

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Mr. TEMPLETON: I'm Brad Templeton. I'm chairman of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, and I've become a spam historian of sorts.

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Mr. TEMPLETON: Botnets are armies of computers, ordinary users' PCs, that have been taken over since they've been infected by a virus. And instead of doing something bad to their computer, they basically allow that computer to be controlled by this remote person. And the remote person has the computer send spam.

Now, there are estimates that suggest that up to 30 percent of people's PCs are infected, are part of botnets. So if it's not the guy to the left of you and it's not the guy to the right of you, it's probably you. Your computer may be sitting out there sending spam all day long without you knowing it. And now up to 80 percent of spam is coming from these computers.

There's some really nasty consequences that have come, partly as a result of the desire to spam.

Unidentified Man #1: And they like spam, spam, spam, spam, spam…

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