SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
Open up your email. On any given morning, you might get two or three notes from friends, six or seven from people trying to sell you energy pills, offshore real estate or virility enhancers. And the good news, you've just won the Lithuanian National Lottery, which you can't recall entering, or that a man in Kenya needs your help; please sir, only you can help to move $20 million through your bank account. All he needs is your routing number.
That's spam. Not the meat-like loaf, but unbidden email, many of them not even sent by actual people but robot programs and their volume is often much greater than the amount of real information that people can find in their inboxes. "Spam: A Shadow History of the Internet," his title of a new book by Finn Brunton who's now assistant professor of information in the School of Information at the University of Michigan.
He joins us from the studios of WUOM in Ann Arbor. Thanks so much for being with us.
FINN BRUNTON: Thank you for having me. It's a pleasure to be here.
SIMON: First off, how did Pitcairn Island become the center for spam?
BRUNTON: It's a marvelous story. Pitcairn Island, which is the least populated jurisdiction in the world, fascinated me because I was familiar with it only as an extremely minor historical event. It's where the Bounty mutineers went when they needed to find an extremely remote place to hide.
SIMON: Right. Mr. Christian. Wound up on Pitcairn Island, yeah.
BRUNTON: Exactly. And I was shocked to learn that, per capita, Pitcairn Island was the world's number one source of spam, and I was just wondering, as anyone would who encounters this statistic, how is this possible? And it's because of the fact that the people on Pitcairn, they don't realize that they have been made into part of the spam system.
What has happened is that one of the computers on the island has been taken over by a malware program, so this island with 45 or 50 people is broadcasting spam without anyone consciously intending it.
SIMON: Explain to us how it developed, because I have an idea. Let me try my pet theory on you, the academic expert, that communications technologies expand as they become capable of delivering jokes.
BRUNTON: Well, I think you are actually very close. The old rule of thumb in media history was that the first private use for any new major communications technology is pornography, but somewhere cheek by jowl with that is humor. One of my favorite details about the history of the telegraph is how quickly an incredible subculture of jokes and gags and pranks and references began to proliferate among the telegraph boys, who are actually managing the equipment.
But indeed, in the case of the internet, from very early on, when it was just these early, often somewhat ragged or haphazard networks between computers mostly in academic settings, the graduate students who were using these machines, as soon as they were not required to use them for some professional purpose, as soon as they had an off hour to kill in the basement, started using them to replay old Monty Python routines, getting back to jokes.
And of course one of the most famous Monty Python routines is the sort of Spam chorus that the Vikings deliver in the made-up Green Midget Cafe in that sketch, where the couple is trying to order something from the menu and everything has Spam in it.
(SOUNDBITE OF MONTY PYTHON SKETCH)
MONTY PYTHON'S FLYING CIRCUS: What do you mean, ugh, I don't like Spam.
Spam, Spam, Spam, Spam, Spam...
BRUNTON: So it starts up as a joke, but the term very quickly becomes the universal term for anyone who's doing that kind of annoying, jokey, time-wasting behavior on these very early computer networks.
SIMON: Well, help us understand what robotics do.
BRUNTON: When you get a spam message, sometimes it'll have an attachment, and the message will say something like, you know, it'll be a message from a friend and it'll say, like, oh, hey, could you take a look at this. And then you open it and it doesn't seem to do anything. It's just a bunch of weird symbols or it fails to open.
You say, oh, something went wrong. I don't know, I'll just delete this and carry on with my day. When you launch that, an exploit within the structure of the software that you're using has quietly taken over your computer and it is using the computer's broadband connection to quietly, in the background, without your knowledge, begin sending out spam messages, following the instructions of a central network called a command and control system.
So what that means, if it costs you nothing to send 100 million messages and only some vanishingly small percentage of a percentage ever gets through, we'll just send 100 million more, you know. And if you can get another 2,000 or 3,000 actually through, you can still make a viable business out of it.
SIMON: Well, help us understand the scale of that viable business.
BRUNTON: You always had spammers who are just crooks, but then you had a lot of people who were moving business models in from the world of, for example, pharmaceutical advertisements in the back pages of weightlifting magazines. The people working now are out and out criminals. And that actually frees them up to potentially make a lot more money than they did before, because if they can convince you to buy something, it's no longer about actually selling you the pharmaceuticals.
It's about taking your credit card information and then using that for identity theft purposes. And to be clear, spam email is upwards of 85 to 90 percent of all email sent on any given day. It's just that most of the time we don't see most of it because our filters are pretty good, but it's a tidal wave that's slamming into these walls that we've built day after day after day and we see the little bit that slops over.
SIMON: May I ask, how do you go through life knowing what you do?
BRUNTON: I use what's called a password manager in my browser and this is a system, it will automatically generate very, very long passwords for any new account you need to set up and then it will keep track of all of them for you and log you in. Because the major danger here is not that someone will necessarily steal your computer. The major danger is an automatic system that, you know, breaks into Gawker's password store or what have you, and then begins to systematically search the Internet for other things of yours that it can access using that particular arrangement of email and password. And having a good password manager makes that impossible.
SIMON: Finn Brunton of the University of Michigan. His new book: "Spam: A Shadow History of the Internet." Thanks so much for being with us.
BRUNTON: Thank you for having me. It was a pleasure.
(SOUNDBITE OF MONTY PYTHON "SPAM" SKETCH)
MONTY PYTHON'S FLYING CIRCUS: Egg and Spam. Egg, bacon and Spam. Egg, bacon, sausage and Spam. Spam, bacon, sausage and Spam.
SIMON: And you can learn about another of his recommended techniques for protecting yourself from spam by going to our website - gee, going to our website to protect yourself from spam. Why not? npr.org.
(SOUNDBITE OF MONTY PYTHON THEME MUSIC)
SIMON: You're listening to WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News.