What is the definition of spam?

3 min read

3 min read

Annoying emails, IMs, texts, voicemails and other digitally distributed messages that you’ve received but never would have asked for? Those can all be described by a single word – spam.

What is spam?

Unsolicited email, called spam, ranks among the greatest problems of electronic communication. It represents up to 50 percent of all email communication.

Spam is any form of unrequested communication sent in bulk (Unsolicited Bulk Email, or UBE). Its most frequent form is a commercial email sent to a large number of addresses (Unsolicited Commercial Email, or UCE), but “spamming” is also possible via instant messages, texts (SMS), social media or even voicemail. Sending spam is illegal in most jurisdictions.

Origin of the term

Any fan of the British comedy television show Monty Python probably already knows where the term comes from. In the show's 1970 ‘Spam’ sketch, two guests are ordering a meal in a greasy-spoon café and notice that nearly every dish on the menu contains SPAM® – a type of canned meat . Even though one of them doesn’t want SPAM in her meal, it soon becomes clear the ingredient is almost impossible to avoid – much like the unsolicited email messages.

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How can you recognize spam?

If the email, message, or any other form of bulk communication is unsolicited and deceptive, then it probably is spam.

PS: If you see it written on a can in an all uppercase form, it is the well-known American food product consisting of cooked ham and pork.

How to protect yourself from spam?

Never post your email to public websites and services and if asked for it, share it wisely. You can also create a disposable email address, which can be used for newsletters or subscriptions.

Brief history

The first spam email campaign was observed in 1978, landing messages in the inboxes of nearly 400 (or 15% of all) users connected to the internet’s predecessor, Advanced Research Projects Agency Network (ARPANET). It advertised a company’s product presentation, but after receiving a great deal of negative feedback, this form of marketing was abandoned – at least for a time.

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As the internet grew to global proportions, so did spam. In the years after 2000, its numbers have exploded, reaching a peak around 2008, when global spam accounted for over 90% of all email traffic. Moreover, it didn’t just spread unsolicited ads, but also phishing links and other fraudulent content, as well as dangerous malware families, making it into a serious security threat that desperately needed to be addressed.

The pushback came on multiple fronts. Cybersecurity vendors and software developers created anti-spam solutions – many based on machine learning – capable of filtering this kind of communication. Legislators also came up with anti-spam laws that made sending spam illegal and prosecutable – which has led to legal cases against perpetrators of spam campaigns.

In 2008, McColo, a California-based hosting provider was shut down because it hosted machines responsible for sending “unsolicited commercial email (UCE)” messages. It is estimated that McColo’s servers were accountable for three quarters of all spam messages sent worldwide at that time.

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