How Spam Turned From Stressful To Serious Security Problem (infographic)

Email was never built to be secure, but as with many inventions the user experience exceeded the design specifications. What was once considered a faster way to send office communications turned into a vast worldwide means of communication between people from all walks of life. Once that transition was made, hackers began to find ways to exploit this technology, turning something as simple as electronically mailing someone a letter into a dangerous vehicle for malicious links and phishing content.

“I don’t like spam!” was the refrain in the Monty Python skit that inspired the name for junk emails that no one asked for or wanted. In the skit diners are read the menu, and almost every option includes the canned luncheon meat Spam, while one diner vociferously proclaims her dislike for the salted, processed meat product. As the internet evolved over time, it gave way to abuses of the technology that no one seemed to ask for or want, namely spam emails, and this is where the name for Spam comes from, because no one likes Spam emails. Eventually those spam emails turned into something more sinister.

The first mass email was sent in 1978, and it was so widely unpopular that it wasn’t attempted again for a decade. By that time, the spam itself was being used to inundate and overwhelm MUD players, thereby crashing their systems and preventing them from being able to play the game.

In the 1990s the Warez community used randomly generated credit card numbers to crack AOL accounts, and once they were in they used those accounts to spam the hacked person’s contacts. From there, hackers began posing as AOL administrators requesting login information to take over a person’s account in order to send spam emails. As security got better, one hacker posted on an AOL message board asking for new ways to create fake accounts other than phishing, and thus the term phishing was coined.

In 1996, Hotmail became available to everyone for free, and it didn’t take long for major computer viruses to being making their way around the internet. By 2000 the ILoveYou virus began making its rounds, eventually infecting 45 million PCs. The following year, the Scam worm made its way around, which caused 1 in 20 infected PCs to lose critical operating software.

Laws against sending unwanted spam emails were passed in 2002, but those laws have been largely ineffective. By 2003 the number of spam emails exceeded the number of real emails for the first time.

Since this point hackers have become more sophisticated than ever, always finding new ways to infiltrate our personal computer spaces. Once text messaging became commonplace hackers began to find ways to exploit the new technology, called smishing. Political campaigns have been hacked on everything from fundraisers, diverting funds to hackers instead of the campaign, to leaking emails. Hackers can take over your computer and use its computing power to run calculations and programs remotely, and most of the time you would never know.

As these threats have grown, so have the means to fight back against them. Artificial intelligence and cloud based security measures have continued to be developed to detect both spam and phishing attacks. Artificial intelligence has worked well to funnel spam emails and potential threats into junk folders, but there are always a few that end up getting through.

Today nearly 4.7 billion phishing emails are sent every day, and last year alone the FBI responded to $1.8 billion worth of phishing related email crimes. Learn more about the history and future of phishing from the infographic below!

The History & Future of Phishing

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