Comment: Pew puts problem into perspective

27 Jul 2005

What are we to make of recent figures that suggest spam is more of a nuisance value than a genuine security threat? A study by the Pew Internet and American Life Project has challenged conventional wisdom about the problem.

It shows that while the volume of unsolicited commercial email is rising, the growth rates are far more modest than reports from some of the large spam-filtering firms would have us believe. MessageLabs reported that spam accounted for a massive 73pc of email traffic on average in 2004. However, the latest Pew figures show that 47pc of users with personal email accounts — which usually receive more spam than work email addresses — said there was no change to the volume of spam. In fact, 22pc said they were getting less spam than a year ago (28pc said they were getting more). In work email accounts, 53pc of users reported no change and 16pc said they were getting less (21pc said they were getting more).

This may be explained by improvements in filtering technology; while there may be more spam in general circulation than before, a fair portion is probably stopped before it actually reaches people’s inboxes.

Surprisingly, many respondents to the Pew survey said spam doesn’t bother them as much as it used to. Less than a quarter of users said spam has reduced their overall use of email. The Pew report doesn’t downplay the issue entirely, as more than half of all internet users polled (52pc) still complain that spam is a big problem for them.

On the other hand, we have to accept that spam is on the radar as a live business issue. The Information Systems Security Association (ISSA), a representative body for security professionals, surveyed its Irish members earlier this year and found that tackling spam became more of a priority than anticipated during 2004. Brian Honan of the ISSA had a plausible explanation as to its more prominent position in the project pecking order: “Once the CEO or sales manager started spending minutes per day to delete spam, it became a business problem.”

The recent conviction of Jeremy Jaynes for spamming offences in the US is an interesting case when cast in the light of the Pew figures. Brian McWilliams, author of the book Spam Kings, recently argued that Jaynes’ nine-year prison stretch was clearly a case where the punishment doesn’t fit the crime. When the case first went to trial last year, a Dublin solicitor remarked that a prison sentence of that duration in this country would be more common for crimes such as murder! All of which calls for some perspective on the debate.

By Gordon Smith