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Flight spam, save the planet

As we recognize Earth Day this week, it’s worth looking back on last week’s report on the carbon footprint of spam.

In a report commissioned by security vendor McAfee, ICF International found the 62 trillion pieces of spam sent in 2008 had the same environmental impact as 3.1 million passenger cars or 2.4 million U.S. homes. A single piece of junk e-mail adds 0.3 grams of carbon dioxide, which is like driving three feet.

Because they usually don’t waste paper, it’s easy to ignore the environmental impact of spam or any other electronic communications. But sending, receiving, storing and viewing messages does consume energy, and energy consumption adds to carbon emissions in addition to other environmental and economic costs.

The ICF estimates that e-mail from the average business user accounts for 288 pounds of carbon dioxide per year, with 22 percent of that usage related to spam. More than half the energy wasted by spam results from users viewing and deleting it, according to the report.

The process of getting spam from one place to another involves multiple phases — all of which consume energy. First there is the scraping of Web sites to harvest e-mail addresses, followed by code and copy writing to initiate the spam campaign. Next comes sending the messages via the Internet to an army of infected “zombie PCs” all of which use energy to receive and retransmit the messages. Then there is the impact on servers that store and send the spam, the routers and other Internet infrastructure and, of course, the PCs that finally receive and display the junk mail.

Add to that the resources used to attempt to filter the spam and it’s easy to understand the potential environmental impact. If every inbox had spam filters, according to the report, we could cut energy waste by 75 percent. But eliminating spam at the source would save even more energy.

When McColo, a U.S.-based Web-hosting service that was responsible for much of the world’s spam, was shut down in 2008, the result was an annualized carbon dioxide savings equal to taking 2.2 million cars off the road. But the victory was short-lived. Spammers have successfully rebuilt their sending capacity.

The report suggests that, beyond doing everything possible to put spammers out of business, spam filtering is an effective way to reduce the energy waste. Most e-mail programs come with spam filters, though configuring them to trap spam and not to trap legitimate mail isn’t always easy.

There are several plug-ins for Microsoft Outlook and Outlook Express that greatly improve the filtering you can do with those programs. Until I discovered a free and even better solution, my favorite was Cloudmark Desktop, which costs $39.95 a year.

The way I currently eliminate most spam is to route all of my mail through Gmail. When people write to me at larry@larrymagid.com, the mail gets routed to my Gmail account. I then access it either through a Web browser or through Microsoft Outlook, which, like all e-mail programs, can be configured to access Gmail. You’ll also need to configure Gmail to allow you to check mail through an e-mail program.

Gmail isn’t perfect. But it does a better-than-average job at trapping spam and a much-better-than-average job of avoiding false positives. Nevertheless, some spam still gets through and I occasionally find a legitimate message trapped in the spam filter.

Yahoo and Hotmail also have spam filters. I haven’t used Hotmail in a while but I find that my Yahoo inbox gets more spam than my Gmail account.

One way to cut back on spam is to avoid having your e-mail address plastered all over the Internet. (I give this advice but I don’t follow it, because I want readers to be able to reach me.) Spammers love to harvest e-mail addresses from blog postings, forums and other public places where addresses are posted. One way to avoid this problem is to use disposable e-mail addresses that expire or can be abandoned if they attract too much spam. For a good primer on this, search Wikipedia for “disposable e-mail.”

Another method is to use an ISP that offers a challenge response system. These services send out a message to unknown senders requiring them to go through a validation process to make sure that a human being is behind the message. I’m not a fan of these systems because they can be annoying to people who write to you and can trap legitimate machine-generated mail, such as offers from companies you want to hear from, mailing lists and even bounce-back notices from people you know.

Regardless of what type of spam filters you use, you should never respond to spam messages, even to tell them to stop. Any response is an indication that the message got through to a live person, which makes your inbox an even more valuable commodity to the spammers.

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