The origin and future of spam and other online intrusions

The origin and future of spam and other online intrusions
The evolution of spam as pictured in CACM. Credit: Emilio Ferrera

From a confidence trick originating in the late 19th century, to sophisticated AI that can manipulate reality, recreating anyone's face or voice with almost pinpoint accuracy—spam has come a long way.

But what does the future of digital spam look like, what risks could it pose to our and privacy, and what can we do to fight it?

In a new paper, which appeared in the August 2019 issue of Communications of the ACM (CACM), Emilio Ferrara, a USC research assistant professor in and research team leader at USC Viterbi's Information Sciences Institute, tracks the evolution of digital spam and explores its complex, and often surprising, history.

"The fight against spam is a constant arms race," said Ferrara, who specializes in computational social sciences and is an expert in social media bots. "Scams not only exploit technical vulnerabilities; they exploit human ones."

Social media spam bots, which automatically produce content and interact with humans, have allowed spammers to scale their operations to an unprecedented level. (Ferrara explores this in his 2016 CACM paper, The Rise of Social Bots).

Since bots have been used for a variety of nefarious scenarios, from manipulation of political discussions to the spread of conspiracy theories and false news, the stakes are high. In the future, Ferrara believes that deepfake technologies could be abused by well-resourced spammers to create AIs pretending to be human.

The digital history of spam. Credit: USC Viterbi School of Engineering

Milestones in Spam History:

  • The term "spam" is internet slang that refers to unsolicited commercial email (UCE).
  • The first reported case of spam occurred in 1898, when the New York Times reported unsolicited messages circulating in association with an old swindle.
  • The first reported case of email spam occurred in 1979, attributed to Digital Equipment Corporation and circulated to 400 users of ARPANET, the precursor network of the modern internet.
  • The term "spam" was coined in 1994, based on a now-legendary Monty Python's Flying Circus sketch, where a crowd of Vikings sings progressively louder choruses of "SPAM! SPAM! SPAM!"


  • Billions of spam emails are sent every day.
  • Email spam "detection algorithms" are approximately 98% accurate, but new breeds of spam are continually evolving.
  • Last year, Facebook said it deleted 1.23 billion posts in 2018's third quarter.

Explore further

How to know when it's safe to click 'unsubscribe' on spam emai

Citation: The origin and future of spam and other online intrusions (2019, July 25) retrieved 19 September 2019 from
This document is subject to copyright. Apart from any fair dealing for the purpose of private study or research, no part may be reproduced without the written permission. The content is provided for information purposes only.

Feedback to editors

User comments

Jul 25, 2019
The term "spam" is internet slang that refers to unsolicited commercial email (UCE).
That should be UBE, Unsolicited Bulk Email. Whether or not it is commercial is irrelevant. "It's about consent, not content."

In the phone system, the most important fix is authenticating caller ID. It's rather difficult to stop abuse if caller ID can't be trusted. I'd like to see strong penalties for communications abusers, particularly when there is a hacking aspect such as botnet herders. These clowns are screwing up civilization. Of course, one needs officials to be willing to track these criminals down and prosecute. (Not slap on the wrist like the FTC so often does.) Enough of them need to go to jail for a decade or more that the threat of being caught becomes real. Not sure how to deal with spam coming in from overseas, where law enforcement can't reach the abusers.

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more