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Anti-Spam

US Has Most Spam But China is Closing In

The US is still the spam capital of the planet, according to a new study. However, using a different set of metrics, it is being outperformed by the like of Belarus, Peru and Iran. In other words, developing countries are punching above their weight and out-polluting America in the online anti-social behaviour markets. On the other hand, the economic powerhouse of the West is ahead on sheer volume in the race to be the number one conduit of commercialised electronic junk. But, say the experts who produced this report, it’s the developing economies that could be hardest hit by the rise of spam.

America is the biggest spam source in the world, according to The Spampionship, a new league table of the 12 biggest spam-producing nations compiled by security vendor Sophos. China is fast emerging as a major source of unwanted email and Russia is in at number three after doubling its share of the spam market. To paraphrase music chart compilers, America has held onto the number one spot but China is in at number two with a bullet. (Or should that be a botnet?)

spam-volume

The Spampionship is not intended to be a roll call of shame, according to Sophos’s head of technology, Paul Ducklin. He claims that the table is meant to be a thought provoking study rather than a finger-pointing exercise.

“We want people to think about security and the consequences of spam,” says Ducklin. “People tend to think it’s harmless, but it’s damaging of lot of economies.”

According to the study, the ‘Dirty Dozen’ top spam producing nations contained a high percentage of nations with ‘developing’ economies, such as Belarus, Uruguay and Macedonia. If the nations are rated on the amount of spam generated per head of population, Belarusians send ten times more spam than Americans (who don’t even get into the top 12 in this particular category). Second place – in the intensity of spam production per capita – goes to a relatively rich nation, Kuwait, whose citizens are six times more likely to be sending spam from their PCs and servers. The third and fourth most intense producers of spam, Taiwan and Kazakhstan, are similarly polarised in terms of economic strength and GDP per head of population. Luxembourg, one of the richest nations in Europe, even makes the top 10.

spam-population

In short, says Ducklin, no real conclusions can be drawn about the likelihood of spam’s origins based on wealth of countries or other factors that might be thought to be significant. It is not hard evidence of corruption, as there are so many contradictory facts and no real coherent pattern emerges. As if to exemplify this, Israel is the seventh biggest originator of spam, says Ducklin, and yet it has possibly the strongest IT security heritage in the world.

“It’s impossible to say where the spam originates anyway. It might be created in China, but repeated by botnets that have taken over machines in the US, in order to promote products in Vietnam,” says Ducklin, “The US comes top of the spam league because it has the most PCs in the world.”

The study might be a good indicator of the countries that take security the least seriously and fail to guard themselves against spam, however. This, says Ducklin, could be hitting the developing economies of countries like Peru (10th in the league table), Ukraine (ninth) and Macedonia (eighth). 

The danger, for the online industries of those nations, is that all devices from those nations could be tarred with the same brush. Western security service providers may be tempted to block all Ukrainian addresses, for example, or make sweeping generalisations about eastern ISPs because of the actions of a few rogue spammers or compromised devices.  “Sometimes everyone that uses a service provider can find themselves on a security blacklist, because there were persistent problems with that address,” says Ducklin.

If internet traffic from emerging economies gets a reputation for being unreliable, security companies may begin to discriminate against them. Innocent companies could be blacklisted because of their association with ISPs in regions in which spam is being produced. The e-commerce industry of those nations is more likely to be affected, says Ducklin, as most of their exports will be aimed at richer Western economies. But the IT security companies protecting the West could unwittingly impose blanket bans on, say, traffic from honest vodka exporters in the Ukraine or aluminium exporters from Kazakhstan.

This is the hidden cost of spam, says Ducklin, and the biggest problem is that spam is not taken seriously enough.

“People think spam doesn’t matter. It does. Just because 90% of it is obvious, we tend to kid ourselves that we won’t fall for it,” says Ducklin. That complacency allows the minority of cunningly conceived, genuine-looking emails to sneak through under the radar. Which is how so many computers are still being hijacked and turned into robotic transmitters of junk mail themselves.

Sophos says its report is not entirely aimed at promoting its own security software and has launched free tools for combatting the menace of spam.     

“A lot of spam is broadcasting unwittingly by home PCs. If we all took a few simple steps we could minimise the collateral damage,” says Ducklin.

 

A journalist for over 20 years, England-based Nick Booth previously worked in IT in the UK’s National Health Service, financial services and London’s Metropolitan Police, witnessing at first hand the disruptive effects of new technology.

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Nick Booth

Nick Booth worked in IT in the UK’s National Health Service, financial services and The Met Police, witnessing at first hand the disruptive effects of new technology. As a journalist and analyst, his mission is to stop history repeating itself.

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