Fight The Good Fight

In the field of Computer Programming, there are many specializations from which a programmer can choose. Over the past five years, the one which I’ve seen get the most interest is AntiSpam. Everyone seems to want in on a piece of this action. The motivation is simple, “I hate spam,” most of them say, wanting a chance to study and rid their world of this annoyance. They look at the problem as a challenge, thinking they can do better.

That’s the dream. The reality is that AntiSpam is boring and futile. You want a challenge? Go to your local beach and try to hold back the ocean with a tennis racket. I guess some may see the ‘challenge’ in this, but not me. I see much better ways to spend my short time on this silly planet.

The promise of just a few years ago was that spam would either plateau or start to decline, as all these amazingly smart people ‘solved’ the spam problem with ever-increasingly sophisticated detectors. First came basic pattern matching, then duplicate detection, source tracking (IP/domain), then ultra-complex learning machines (Bayesian, etc), then even our government jumped into action, making spam illegal (!), and more recently, deep content identification. Hundreds of thousands of software engineering hours have been spent, with the promise of everything from ‘saving email’ to freeing the world of spam’. Um, sure.

Guess what? The spam problem is getting worse. More spam is flowing around the Internet than ever before. More hardware/CPU is needed for hosting an email system. More network bandwidth is needed for every corporation on the planet. This is progress? Hmm. Will the day come that you’ll need a 64-way supercomputer for even the simplest mail system?

A recent quote in an article about spam really made me laugh, “It is a never-ending cat-and-mouse game.” Wonder if the guys working on AntiSpam would like to try to rid the world of rats? Or maybe they just like cats.

Where is AntiSpam going? Should we believe their promises? Is there a light at the end of the tunnel? Is a ‘solution’ just around the next (or any) corner? Well, I guess anything it possible (Quantum Tunneling ), but I don’t think any of the promises of AntiSpam are likely or even reasonable to predict. Here’s why. First, spam is extremely profitable. The argument from the AntiSpam camp is: ‘we will eat into their profits to the point where they will find something else to do’. Well, they overlooked something critical, spam is becoming more profitable. Not only do you need to eat away at today’s profit margins, but also the increased profit each year going forward. Second, starting up is very easy. There are kits you can buy to get started sending spam in under a day, and you’ll likely see a profit within a month. Lastly, it’s hard to say it hurts anyone, or is ‘bad’ in any way. This means we’ll have plenty of spammers going forward.

Spam is here to stay and the more we spend on fighting it, the more the problem will escalate. Maybe you feel The War on Drugs is working too? If so, I suggest you apply for an AntiSpam job, but be warned, you have a long line of eager idealists in front of you.