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Spam is a progression, an evolution in interactive marketing that will not stop or fade away into any void. No matter how hard the government tries and no matter how much lobbyist’s lobby, spam will always exist. In one form or another, this highly effective tool cannot afford to disappear.
Spam has it origins in print media including flyers and pamphlets that littered mailboxes for years, annoying residents and causing the felling of millions of trees. This type of spam attempted to sell products in a non-interactive manner but ended up having a very direct effect on the reader. Spam then evolved into telemarketing and a new era of interactivity was born. Millions of marketing staff were hired worldwide and paid on commission by how many products they could sell over the phone. This worked for a short amount of time, but the intrusion was too great and telemarketing became a hated profession.
With the birth of the Internet, it was only natural that marketing take a shot at the Internet as a method of sending out its sales propaganda, and e-mail spam was born. What happens next? With the development and increased capacity of the Internet, Voice over IP (VoIP), Video over IP, and cutting-edge Telepresence technology, we are opening up new methods of talking to each other. Communication itself is being redesigned and marketing will be a part of any communication. In the future, you can expect to see video spam, voice spam, and even virtual sales people popping up in your living room.
This chapter focuses on the future of spam, from what you should expect to see, and what may end up being reality in ten to twenty year’s time
The movie Minority Report shows a glimpse into a futuristic world where billboards know who you are and what products you like, and advertising is tailored directly to you and your needs. Everything you do, everything you buy, and every dollar in your pocket is tracked and monitored. This scary world may seem far-fetched and most would think it to simply be a creation of Hollywood, but did you know that the director of this movie hired technology experts to predict how the world might look in 20 year’s time? Minority Report’s environment is very much a possible reality. The idea of such targeted advertising is the dream of any marketing company. Advertising a product to someone who needs it, is interested in it, and has the potential of buying it is a guaranteed way to ensure a sale. Take the following scenario for example:
Jack walks down the street on Monday and buys two dress shirts from Store A that contain Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) tags. The store matches the RFID tag from Jack’s credit card to his purchase of the two shirts, tying him to the purchase. Later that week, Jack goes back to Store A to buy another shirt. The store detects the RFID on Jack’s credit card, looks up Jack’s sales history, and determines that Jack likes buying “J-Shirts, The Best in the World.” J-Shirts then uses this information to advertise only to people who buy their shirts, thus increasing product sales while saving marketing revenue that would be wasted on non-interested parties. After all, it makes no sense to try to sell a business shirt to a ten-year-old girl.
RFID is a technology that incorporates the use of electromagnetic or electrostatic coupling in the radio frequency portion of the electromagnetic spectrum. This bandwidth is used to identify an object by transmitting a unique identification code, much like the product barcode that identifies what brand a product belongs to.
An RFID scenario contains an antenna (such as a billboard), a transceiver, and a transponder (the RFID tag). The antenna uses radio frequency waves to transmit a signal that activates the transponder on the RFID device. When activated, the tag transmits the stored data back to the antenna through the onboard transponder. Mario Cardullo patented RFID technology in 1969, but the technology has only recently become viable.
Marketing principles are based on a supply and demand theory. Everyone has a demand of one sort or another. The goal is to understand that demand and supply the right product to meet it. RFID technology would give sales staff the power to sell a product to their niche market, the spam equivalent of sending “Casino Spam” to known users of online casinos. You know they are interested, so your advertising carries more weight with a higher success rate. In 20 years, RFID technology may be implemented to this extent. RFID tags are already becoming very common in modern day society. From clothing to $20 bills, RFID tags are the new barcode of the world and many new products are shipping with RFID tags located inside them.
There was an interesting story recently published on prisonplanet.com (http://www.prisonplanet.com/022904rfidtagsexplode.html) that documented how the new $20 bill features an RFID in the right eye of Andrew Jackson. When microwaved, the note burns in one particular place only. The RFID device was burned, but not the rest of the note.
Money is only the beginning. Personalization with RFID technology was recently demonstrated at Microsoft, where each person attending the company’s annual Chief Executive Officer (CEO) summit was assigned seating that was calculated by a server monitoring and recording their RFID badge.
You may wonder how RFID influences spam. As RFID emerges and product marketing becomes more targeted and focused, new methods of delivering advertising content will also emerge, from digital billboards to personal greeting messages from your bathroom mirror. Such new avenues will also open up new delivery methods for spam. Imagine walking down the street, only to find that a billboard detects you have a credit card and asks if you would like to buy Viagra, all because a spammer rented digital space on the billboard targeting anyone with a credit card. Marketing will always exist, and RFID technology will make the process of selling a product even more effective.
Here’s another example. You’re walking down the street and you pass a homeless man. Mysteriously, he only begs for money from people who have dollar bills in their pockets, as if he secretly knows how much money they have. Perhaps he has an RFID antenna in his pocket and a small screen up his sleeve, notifying him if the person has a dollar bill. By reading each note’s emitted RFID tag, the beggar can target only the people who have the ability to give him a dollar.
Ring, ring. You pick up the phone with anticipation and hear, “Hi there, sexy. Try Viagra, www.viagraonline.com for guaranteed results. Bye.” Irritated, you slam down the phone realizing you have been a victim of unwanted spam.
Don’t think it’s possible? Think again. The new age of spam has already been identified and its name is Spam over Internet Telephony (SPIT). Through the use of the ever-growing VoIP technology, it is theoretically possible for a spammer to send millions of phone numbers a message. If a human being answers the phone they will be greeted with audio spam. If the recipient does not pick up, the user’s voicemail will record the message.
Spammer’s only need to know your Internet address (the equivalent of your phone number) and they are off and running. Unlike telemarketing, SPIT does not require large amounts of sales staff to sell a product, just a computer, a pre-recorded message, and a list of numbers. Automation can be a scary thing and SPIT has the potential to be more prolific than e-mail spam.
“The fear with VoIP spam is you will have an Internet address for your phone number, which means you can use the same tools you use for e-mail to generate traffic, That raises automation to scary degrees”
Tom Kershaw, Vice President of VeriSign
Currently there are only approximately 600,000 commercial VoIP subscribers, but the technology is growing rapidly. VoIP providers can offer much better services and prices than their analog counterparts. These price cuts and new features will inevitably drive slews of customers to their services. Research firm IDC has predicted that VoIP revenue will grow from the current annual $3.3 billion to a whopping $15.1 billion by 2007. Internet technology makes VoIP spam much easier to use than its analog predecessor, enabling spammers to send thousands of messages in parallel. VoIP spam software has theoretically been designed by Qovia, a U.S.-based VoIP software company that recently released software that government agencies are interested in using to warn massive amounts of VoIP-enabled citizens simultaneously of an impending disaster or emergency. Although useful for the community, this technology can also be used for spam. All a spammer has to do is use the exact same method to send marketing information.
Qovia’s software is capable of sending 200 calls per second. To put this in perspective, it would only take 50 minutes to send a VoIP spam message to every current VoIP subscriber in the world. Qovia Chief Technical Officer (CTO), Choon Shim, said the company didn’t create its VoIP spam generator to send “30-second calls about Viagra to millions of phones.” Rather, it was to serve as a wake-up call of what could be a devastating problem for the growing Internet phone industry.” Not surprisingly, in June 2004, Qovia filed their own patent to cover the methods of detecting and preventing VoIP Denial of Service (DOS) attacks and the spread of SPIT and VoIP spam. The patent, entitled “System and Method for Broadcasting VoIP Messages,” covers the use of VoIP for emergency broadcasts as well as methodology to prevent unauthorized use of VoIP technology, including for the distribution of spam or SPIT. Legally, there is not much that can be done against VoIP spam. Although the newly created “Do Not Call” registry protects U.S. citizens from unsolicited telemarketing phone calls, the act does not explicitly cover data calls such as VoIP and there is much uncertainty about how effective it would be against VoIP spam. VoIP has some very gaping holes both legally and technologically, since currently there is no method available to filter or block broadcasted VoIP messages, thus leaving recipients wide open to all forms of audio spam. Although VoIP is new technology and there are only a few cases of it being used to deliver spam, it is still a very real risk. In June of this year, the United States Telephone Association (USTA) identified that VoIP spam is going to be the next major ordeal for American telecommunication providers to deal with. That means that within five years, your e-mail in-box may be spam free, but your voicemail may be cluttered even more.
The law is always one step behind mass marketing and those who do it. A law is only created when a problem reaches such heights that its implementation is required. This, in a sense, makes it relatively easy to stay one step ahead of the law; spam was sent over the Internet in huge volumes for at least three years before sufficient laws were created. In this age where the Internet is commonplace in sending spam illegally, if the law had been created sooner, spammers may have been scared off before spamming became a profession of such epic proportions.
Within the next ten years, I can see spam evolving into at least two different digital forms. Whether VoIP spam, Video Phone spam, or electronic billboards that shout your name, spam will always exist but the laws that surround it may not. Current attitudes toward spam suggest that technology will be designed in the future without such an open, trusting ideology in mind. Internet protocols were originally designed to make communication as easy as possible. Most protocols were written in the 1960s by people who saw no need to restrict or limit communication. After all, open communication was what this generation of programmers dreamed about the Internet providing.
Now, however, with so many core technologies depending on the Internet, communication has to be guaranteed and each message sent has to come from an accountable, credible host. That host has to be able to hold the individual who sent each message legally responsible for its contents. Protocol designers will never make the same trusting mistake again. Within ten years, the Simple Mail Transfer Protocol (SMTP) protocol will be superseded by a far more suspicious and skeptical replacement; a protocol based on accountability and credibility. If technology made prosecuting spammers easier, then in reverse, the law will become more relaxed as more spammers are fined; $40 million dollar fines for sending spam may become a thing of the past. The reason behind many of these fines is to make an example of the spammers being prosecuted, trying to warn off other potential spammers and set a precedent. Spam fines may become as commonplace as speeding or parking violations and the amounts greatly reduced.
Although e-mail spam is protected by law, spam will evolve into a new medium, one that is unprotected by the judicial system and open for exploitation. Internet technology may never be as trusting as it once was; however, laws will still take many years to come into effect, leaving a large window for exploitation. Unless generic anti-spam laws are passed, ones designed to protect citizens from all types of unsolicited advertisement from billboards to radio commercials, spam will always exist and at some point will be beyond the reach of the law. Spammers will always look for new loopholes in the law, or a different technological avenue to exploit, striving to find new creative ways of delivering a message to the public while staying within “grey” or uncharted areas of the law.
In the near future, spam filters will become greatly enhanced by the introduction of Artificial Intelligence and Quantum computing. Filters will have the ability to become epically intelligent compared to their modern day counterparts. A current spam filter will assess an e-mail based on historical features of other spam messages, from the headers to the use of certain words. Filters may not understand what the e-mail really means, but they know that previous e-mails that looked like this one were spam, so chances are this e-mail is also spam. This methodology makes parties culpable by association and works in many circumstances but not all; although a message may contain “Buy Viagra,” it may be a completely innocent message.
Imagine a world where your spam filter reads all of your e-mail, understands the language as well as you do, knows what the e-mail really means, and what it is trying to say or, more importantly, sell. Using Artificial Intelligence, spam filters would have the ability to filter content down to tone, or even implicit subjects used inside the e-mail body. Your future corporation may decide to filter all e-mails you receive at work that contain purely personal information, making sure you are only talking about professional work-related subjects. Spam filters would have no problem understanding, reading, and classifying e-mail, making any evasion technique practically impossible. Such a filtering effort requires very significant central processing unit (CPU) power. Currently, there are Natural Language Parsing (NLP) projects that can read a document or body of text and understand the tone, subjects, and information portrayed within. However, this English comprehension can take a very powerful server several minutes to analyze a single body of text, an unrealistic timeframe when the average mail server may need to parse 100 spam messages per minute.
When the world of Quantum computing becomes a reality, NLP techniques will also become a viable solution for spam filtering. Only in the new digital age would such a vast CPU resource be available for such a menial task. Imagine a filter that would act as a virtual human being, reading and understanding your e-mail and doing it faster than you ever could. This idea has been adopted already by eProvisia, a spam-filtering company located in the Palmyra Atoll. The company’s approach was not to use sophisticated Artificial Intelligence to filter spam, but instead to hire tens of thousands of workers to click on and delete your spam messages directly from your in-box. For the low cost of $49.95 a month, you can have your own living, breathing spam filter assigned to your personal e-mail account, who will watch for and delete any suspicious e-mails that may come your way.
However, this service puts the integrity of your e-mails at some level of risk. A computer would have no interest in your credit card details or the new password to your online bank account, but one of the human spam filters might have a pre-conceived interest towards the information.
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