Did you know that the very first spam email was sent out in 1978?
The very first email ever had been sent over the ARPANET (precursor to the internet) just a few years prior: a test email sent between two computers sitting side-by-side, connected only via the ARPANET.
After email was invented, it didn’t take long for it to be corrupted, or for that corruption to spread: Today, more than 70% of all emails sent are spam.
Email spam isn’t just annoying; it causes real damage damage — and it’s more effective than you might think.
Spam email can damage your computer with malware contained in links or attachments, which can can damage your computer or harvest sensitive personal information to send to hackers. The same study that found that 70% of emails are spam also found that 2.3% of all emails contained malicious attachments, often designed to spread insidious computer viruses when opened by an unsuspecting recipient. The viruses spread by spam emails can include Trojan programs like keyloggers, which keep track of everything you type on your keyboard. Spammers use these programs to gather login information and passwords, which they can then sell or take advantage of themselves, logging into sensitive accounts such as your online banking account, and stealing your money or identity.
Spam also often includes phishing attempts, with emails posing as legitimate websites in order to trick the recipient into revealing passwords or other sensitive information. Phishing attempts can be difficult to spot when scammers are experienced in duplicating websites: they can look exactly the same as a legitimate website, including your bank’s. Often the only way to tell the difference is by looking closely at the URL, which won’t match your banks – but is probably very close. Scammers are smart about using subdomains to duplicate legitimate URLs closely, such as www.yourbank.com.scammer.com – the “scammer.com” part is the actual domain name, while everything before it is a subdomain.
Then there’s the famous Nigerian scam, with their convincing sob stories and promises of easy riches. This scam actually dates back hundreds of years, but the advent of email has made it much easier to reach millions of potential targets. These emails often purposely use bad spelling and grammar in order to filter out targets who are too savvy to fall for their schemes.
Who sent that very first email scam? Was it a practiced “Nigerian” con artist who was an early adopter of email, and saw its potential to pull the same trick that had been successful on so many others for hundreds of years?
Actually, the first spam email wasn’t a scam; just questionable marketing.
In the 70s, the ARPANET was used by a few thousand research scientists across the United States.
It was sent by Gary Thuerk, marketing manager of the now-defunct Digital Equipment Corp., an early computer manufacturer. In May of 1978, Thuerk, tasked with promoting the new DECSYSTEM-20 computer mainframes, realized he could easily reach his target audience for free just by sending a message over the ARPANET.
“WE INVITE YOU TO COME SEE THE 2020 AND HEAR ABOUT THE DECSYSTEM-20 FAMILY,” his all-caps email advertised.
Unfortunately, the reaction then was the same as our reaction to spam today: most recipients ignored the message and deleted it. The Defense Communications Agency, which ran the Arpanet, even called Thuerk’s boss to file a complaint (although Thuerk still says to this day that he did nothing wrong.)
Today, Thuerk thinks of himself as the father of e-marketing, but others have given him a title that’s not so complimentary: the father of spam.
Though Gary Thuerk’s reputation is less than flattering today, in his work he did help to usher in a new era of computer technology and popularize the use of email and the ARPANET.
Thuerk wasn’t so lucky in his legacy, but many of the tech geniuses below made out much better… though some of their contributions were just as questionable. The good intentions of those who invented the pop-up ad and captchas are a little difficult to believe today, but hindsight’s always 20/20.
Check out the tech geniuses and their unfortunate contributions to today’s World Wide Web below.
Download this infographic.