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Spam: Is it Starting to Go Away?

I remember years ago when the Internet was totally different from the way it is now. If in the early 1990s, for example, someone sent a message containing some kind of advertisement for a product, service or even a conference, that person extremely likely to get flamed. As we all know, today we are bombarded with spam that advertises all kinds of things. Studies over the years repeatedly show that the majority of Internet traffic–up to 90 percent or more of it at certain times–consists of spam.

For the average user, spam is mostly an annoyance, something that unnecessarily consumes time and requires effort to delete. Additionally, spam wastes employee time, thus lowering their productivity. Fortunately, the combination of spam filters in mail servers and elsewhere generally makes the spam problem for individual users tolerable. The same is not true for Internet service providers (ISPs), however. They are billed according to the amount of traffic going in and out of their networks. Spam has seriously shrunk their profit margins and has even contributed to some of them going out of business.

Numerous initiatives to reduce spam have for the most part not been all that successful. The CAN-SPAM Act, for example, specifies penalties (which potentially include jail time) for spammers. Unfortunately, however, this legislation has done little to deter spammers, mainly because so much spam is sent from computers outside the US. Organizations such as Spamhaus track the most egregious spammers, rings of spammers, and those who provide spam support services, working with law enforcement and ISPs to identify them and to gather evidence that can be used against them in court. Spamhaus is a top-notch organization, but its efforts have gone only so far. Lawsuits and cease-and-desist orders against this organization by organizations claiming that their business has suffered because of inability to get messages to customers and potential customers have, for example, significantly hindered Spamhaus.

There is some good news in the war against spam, however. Recent evidence indicates that spam is declining. Symantec’s hosted services group has recently announced that Internet spam volume has decreased around the world by 47 percent over the past three months. Symantec says that the fall in spam is due to law enforcement efforts to shut down botnets and bring their owners to justice. Other estimates of the decline in spam are more conservative (e.g., a 20 percent drop.) Whatever the real figure may be, by all appearances spam volume has recently been falling.

What is law enforcement doing to bring down botnets? Consider spamit.com, a Russian spam site that suddenly shut down nearly two months ago. Spammers were paid to use this site to send spam promoting pharmaceutical products such as Viagra. Experts generally feel that Russian law enforcement efforts made this site less and less profitable over time. The suspected leader, Igor A. Gusev, disappeared shortly after the site shut down. Russian law enforcement has speculated that Gusev, who is facing charges of illegally operating a pharmacy and running a business without a license, has fled to some other country.

Just one month ago Dutch law enforcement authorities brought down servers used in connection with the gigantic Bredolab botnet believed to have infected over 30 million computing systems around the world. Police arrested an Armenian man believed to be the mastermind behind this botnet. Although this botnet was used to steal information rather than to generate spam, the takedown of this botnet provides yet another example of how law enforcement is racking up successes in the war against botnets.

A small note of caution is appropriate, however. Each botnet takedown does indeed constitute a victory in the fight to reduce spam, yet we all know that determined cybercriminals are not deterred when they lose control of a few machines here and there. They are instead likely to set up and run other machines in the place of the ones they have lost and then rebuild their botnets. The best outcome, therefore, is arresting, convicting, and incarcerating spam kings. Fortunately, this kind of outcome is also starting to occur more frequently.

–Gene Schultz, Ph.D., CISSP, CISM, GSLC
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