The Spam Diaries

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

Monday, February 19, 2007

You are the product

Many years ago, when working in mainstream media, a mentor of mine gave me a remarkable insight: Commercial television does not exist to sell products to consumers (the networks don't manufacturer toasters and personal hygiene products after all). No, the commercial television industry exists to sell viewers to advertisers. In other words, the viewer is the product.

This is the rock-solid foundation of advertising: Consumers are the commodity which the media sells. Often, the consumers pay for the privilege of being sold.

About a decade ago, there was travel agency by the name of Starr Tours. They specialized in booking vacations for nudists, advertising regularly in the rec.nude newsgroup. Sign up with Starr Tours, and spend a glorious week basking in the sun in all your glory. Then one day, one of the nudists noticed advertising in the alt.sex.voyeurs newsgroup. The ads were entitled "See Naked Teens & Pre-Teens LIVE!" and offered bookings to the same destinations as the nudist trips, where you were promised thousands of nubile young girls frolicking naked on the beach. The ad was posted by Starr Tours. In other words, the nudists were the product that Starr was selling to the voyeurs — and the nudists were paying for the privilege.

Thus it is today on the internet. Your attention, and especially your email address, are the valuable commodity which is bought and sold on the internet. In a recent interview with spammer Ronnie Scelson, Scelson claimed that he bought email addresses from mainstream businesses, including banks, for 7¢ each. According to an article in DC Internet, he claimed that AOL had happily sold their entire customer list to him, and in addition, spams their own customers directly. AOL has not denied this. Is Scelson telling the truth? You can never tell with spammers, but it's possible. Valid contact info for people with money is a valuable commodity in the marketing world.

One thing Scelson is telling the truth about: Once you give your email address to a commercial site, there is a good chance it will be re-sold to spammers. If the business doesn't sell your information directly, they'll have an employee willing to do it under the table. In 2005, Ameritrade either sold or leaked its customer list to spammers. That same year, data broker ChoicePoint sold the personal information of 145,000 Americans to Nigerian criminals. In 2006, Gratis Internet sold the personal information of six million people to spammer Datran, in direct violation of their own privacy policy.

I can speak from personal experience here too. I use a big-name internet provider for my DSL service. When I signed up, I was given an email address in their domain. I have never, not even once, used that email address for anything. It's not an easily-guessable name. Other than routine business messages from my provider, it should never receive email. Just now, for the first time in six months, I checked my email account there. There were over 2000 spams waiting for me. How did the spammers get my email address? I can't prove it wasn't a dictionary attack, but given the numbers involved, it sure looks like my provider sold me out. Did they make more money selling me to spammers than they'll lose when I cancel my account? They'll have to judge that for themselves.

Businesses are not all evil of course. I've given tagged email addresses to many businesses over the years, and most of them have never received spam from anyone other than the businesses I gave the addresses to. Some businesses have even kept their promise to only send me the actual newsletters that I asked to received. Powell's Books and American Airlines stand out as examples of ethical businesses in this regard; they've had my email address for nearly a decade without a single unwanted email.

1 Comments:

Anonymous Bob the Nob said...

I must remind ye, dear brother, that I have 3 gmail accounts - one I use for online shopping & a listserv, one is the address for my MySpace page, one I've almost never used. ALL are spammed heavily, in identical fashion & in similar numbers (mostly pharma spam & pump 'n' dump come-ons). A forth gmail acct gets no spam, yet I suspect Google is not immune.

12:34 PM  

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