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What is spam?

Every Internet user knows the word ‘spam’ and sees it in their inbox quite often. But not everyone knows that years ago the word ‘spam’ had nothing to do with either the Internet or emails.

‘Spam’ is an acronym derived from the words ‘spiced’ and ‘ham’.

In 1937, the Hormel Foods Corporation (USA) started selling minced sausage made from out-of-date meat. The Americans refused to buy this unappetizing product. To avoid financial losses the owner of the company, Mr. Hormel, launched a massive advertizing campaign which resulted in a contract to provide tinned meat products to the Army and Navy.

In 1937, Hormel Foods began to supply its products to American and allied troops. After World War 2, with Britain in the grips of an economic crisis, spam was one of the few meat products that wasn’t rationed and hence was widely available. George Orwell, in his book ‘1984’, described spam as ‘pink meat pieces’, which gave a new meaning to the word ‘spam’ - something disgusting but inevitable.

In December 1970 the BBC television comedy series Monty Python’s Flying Circus showed a sketch set in a cafe where nearly every item on the menu included spam - the tinned meat product. As the waiter recited the SPAM-filled menu, a chorus of Viking patrons drowned out all other conversation with a song repeating "SPAM, SPAM, SPAM, SPAM... lovely SPAM, wonderful SPAM", hence "SPAMming" the dialogue. Since then spam has been associated with unwanted, obtrusive, excessive information which suppresses required messages.

In 1993 the term ‘spam’ was first introduced with reference to unsolicited or undesired bulk electronic messages. Richard Dephew, administrator of the world-wide distributed Internet discussion system Usenet, wrote a program which mistakenly caused the release of dozens of recursive messages onto the news.admin.policy newsgroup. The recipients immediately found an appropriate name for these obtrusive messages – spam.

On April 12 1994, a husband-and-wife firm of lawyers, Canter & Siegel, posted the first massive spam mailing. The company’s programmer employed Usenet to advertise the services offered by Canter & Siegel, thus giving a start to commercial spam.

Today the word ‘spam’ is widely used in email terminology, though Hormel tinned meat products are still on sale in the USA.

UCE and UBE

Before we define exactly what spam is, a few words should be said about spam in general and how it is understood in other countries.

Depending on the goals of the sender (spammer), spam (unsolicited bulk email) may contain commercial information, or have nothing to do with it at all. In other words, according to the content of the message, spam is divided into unsolicited commercial email (UCE) and unsolicited bulk email (UBE).

An email may contain information about its content in the SUBJECT field, whilst in the body of the message a sender may explain why they have addresses a recipient without asking their permission and what the recipient must do in order not to get emails from the sender in the future. In other words, if a user wants to unsubscribe from unsolicited emails (opt-out) they must follow the instructions of the spammer, which as a rule, will require information about the user’s email address or the need to call a telephone number (usually a toll-free phone number).

Spammers know that they are sending out unsolicited information and try to make it seem as though they do not want to inconvenience the user through clever use of the SUBJECT field text and the inclusion of an unsubscribe mechanism. In fact, spammers do not care about reducing the inconvenience caused by spam, and what is more, they dodge responsibility for their actions by using spoofed sender addresses, third-party addresses or fake message headings. Their only goal is to impede the identification of the sender and thus to prevent any possible retribution.

The definition of spam

According to Kaspersky Lab, the definition of spam is anonymous, unsolicited bulk email.

Let's take a closer look at each component of the definition:

Anonymous: real spam is sent with spoofed or harvested sender addresses to conceal the actual sender.

Mass mailing: real spam is sent in enormous quantities. Spammers make money from the small percentage of recipients that actually respond, so for spam to be cost-effective, the initial mails have to be high-volume.

Unsolicited: mailing lists, newsletters and other advertising materials that end users have opted to receive may resemble spam, but are actually legitimate mail. In other words, the same piece of mail can be classed as both spam and legitimate mail depending on whether or not the user elected to receive it.

It should be highlighted that the words 'advertising' and 'commercial' are not used to define spam. Many spam messages are neither advertising nor any type of commercial proposition. In addition to offering goods and services, spam mailings can fall into the following categories:

  • Political messages
  • Quasi-charity appeals
  • Financial scams
  • Chain letters
  • Fake spam being used to spread malware

Because some unsolicited correspondence may be of interest to the recipient, a quality anti-spam solution should be able to distinguish between true spam (unsolicited, bulk mailing) and unsolicited correspondence.

True spam should be reviewed or deleted at the recipient's convenience. Unsolicited correspondence may also be filtered, but this should be carried out carefully because a legitimate commercial proposition, a charity appeal, an invitation addressed personally to an existing recipient or a newsletter can certainly be defined as unsolicited mail, but not as spam. Legitimate messages may also include delivery failure messages, misdirected messages, messages from system administrators or even messages from old friends who have not previously corresponded with the recipient by email. Unsolicited - yes. Unwanted - not necessarily.