The following is the 7th part of an exclusive Impact Lab series called the Twelve Trends of Christmas by Thomas Frey.  Title:  Spam Terrorists

Spam is not just a mild inconvenience anymore; it is clogging veins and arteries, threatening the very existence of the Internet.  In 2006 the annual average spam rate was 86.2 percent, with botnets responsible for 80 percent of all spam in circulation.

If you’re unfamiliar with the terminology, botnets are a collection of hijacked computers with high speed Internet connections running programs to send out spam or create other kinds of security headaches.

“Bot herder” is a slang term used to describe the people who hijack and control the infected computers.  Often times the Trojan virus used to take control of a machine comes in the form of anti-virus software that is undetectable with current technology.

Bot herders are quickly becoming modern-day mob bosses using their armies of compromised computers to wreck havoc on anyone who steps in their way.  In short, these people have become online terrorists.

While many people have resorted to using anti-spam software to gain control of their email, a much larger problem exists with huge volumes of spam acting like giant hairballs, slowing the flow of information through the Internet’s main pipelines.

At last count, the number of computers under control by bot herders was around 73,000.  Exact numbers remain elusive because of the various techniques used to mask their identity.  However, computers in 166 countries are part of the botnet, with the United States accounting for more than half of the infections.

A botnet of this size is capable of sending a billion spam e-mails in a single day.

Even more frightening is the fact that the growing volume of spam is the handiwork of Russian hackers with the top 200 spammers in the world accounting for 80% of all spam.

MessageLabs, a leading web security firm has made the following predictions about spam in 2007:

  • Threats are expected to converge further over the course of 2007 – as email security becomes tighter, the criminals will send more malicious emails with URL links that can slip under the security radar and wreak havoc on businesses.
  • Ransomware, malicious software that will encrypt key files and documents using a secret key known only to the extortionist, will become increasingly threatening as the technology used by cyber criminals becomes more sophisticated and unbreakable.
  • Spam will become more targeted throughout 2007. Just as geek spam targeted the IT sector, we will continue to see more sectors such as Finance and Legal targeted in a similar way.
  • Botnets will be engineered to be resilient, allowing the criminals to maintain control of zombie computers more easily, much like SpamThru which we saw in 2006.
  • Experts believe that the number of worms targeting Mac OS X will rise in the beginning of 2007. MessageLabs already detects an average of ten new worms per day overall.
  • The availability of “off the shelf” kits for less tech-savvy spammers will grow in numbers, and therefore increase the number of criminals that security experts will have to battle.

Reading through these trends and watching the garbage that is making its way to our inbox can be very discouraging, leading us to believe that we are losing the war on spam.  But here is where it gets interesting.

With a changing of the guard in Washington, priorities will shift and resources will be reappropriated.  Since every government needs problems to solve and bad people to fight, the emphasis on Iraq and oil will shift to other pressing domestic problems, and somewhere near the top of that list will be spam as a chief impediment to conducting business today.
Throwing more money at the spam problem itself is not likely to be effective.  However, shifting spammers into the category of being declared terrorists, and planning covert military operations against known spammers will significantly changes the rules of engagement.

Spammers have been emboldened by their anonymity and love playing on the “my-brain-is-bigger-than-your-brain” battlefield.  However, when soldiers show up with guns at their door, these smug obstructionists with their secret algorithms will quickly begin to question their own motivations.


ABOUT:  Thomas Frey is currently Google’s Top Rated Futurist Speaker.  He serves as the Senior Futurist and Executive Director of the DaVinci Institute.  For more information click here.