The Spam Diaries

News and musings about the fight against spam.
 by Edward Falk

Sunday, March 05, 2006

Hidden costs of spam

It seems that not a month goes by without some article in the media estimating the costs of spam to industry. The Washington Post estimated the cost of spam at more than $10 billion dollars per year in 2003. By 2005, Information Week had estimated the cost to be more than $21 billion. I've seen estimates as high as $50 billion. Enter "cost of spam" into Google search and you'll find thousands of similar articles.

Several sites even provide cost of spam calculators where you enter demographics about your company and the calculator tells you how much spam is costing you.

Now, estimating the cost of spam is an inexact science* at best, and every pundit probably has their own way of coming up with their numbers, but that's not what this article is about. Instead, I want to talk about the costs you can't translate into dollars.

There were two seperate articles this last week that illustrate my point. The first, from the Sacremento Bee, Spam defenses get overly aggressive, talks of a user who lost a number of important emails to false positives in a spam filter.

False positives are one of the biggest problems caused by spam. The enormous load of spam we all face means that spam filters are pretty much a fact of life for most of us. And spam filters mean false positives. Better spam filters mean more aggressive filter-evading techniques by the spammers, which lead to more aggressive spam filters, which leads to more false positives. We'd all like to think that the perfect spam filter is out there, waiting to be invented by some AI graduate student, but I believe -- for reasons that might merit a post of their own -- that such a filter is impossible. And thus, the false positives.

Every month or two, I take a few hours off and dig through the mail folder into which the spam was dumped, looking for names and subjects that signify false positives. Oh, my old college buddy was in town last week? Looks like I missed him; too bad he used the wrong keyword. Problem with an eBay transaction? Too bad it looked like a phishing attempt. My cousin needed a college loan? Well, the world needs ditch-diggers too. A beautiful woman saw my profile and wants to meet me? Oh, wait, that one was spam.

Spam causes us to lose wanted messages along with the spam; either through false positives in an automated filter, or just hitting delete one too many times and not noticing.

The second article to catch my eye was in PC World. The article, Spam Mutates, starts off with the tale of a blogger who threw in the towel because he was sick of fighting the blog spam.

That's another cost of spam -- it drives good content off the internet. Until the 90's, usenet was a fantastic fountain of knowledge and ideas. After the spammers flooded it, a lot of the worthwhile content went away as authors gave up trying to compete. Now we see bloggers who are frustrated with the constant fight against blog spam.

Lately cell phone spam has become a problem, and there were several articles in recent weeks about how the problem is expected to increase. If the cell phone companies can't find a way to combat this -- and I'm betting they won't -- we can expect to see users abandoning text messaging altogether as spammers make the service worthless. We may even see some real impact on the sales and usage of the phones themselves. I've already seen a similar phenomenon as land-line users abandon their phones because of all the telemarketing calls which have ruined the utility of conventional telephones.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Very insightful about the hidden costs of spam. Keep up the good work and research. I can totally relate to all that you have mentioned.

10:31 AM  

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