the end of e mail

For almost 15 years now, the e-mail check has been a standard part of my morning routine, preceded only by the morning shower.

For almost 15 years now, the e-mail check has been a standard part of my morning routine, preceded only by the morning shower.

Over the past five years or so, though, the importance and productivity of that part of my routine has been dropping away, and the day is likely coming when it will become a minor task I get around to at some less time-critical part of the day.

The fact is – and I think I am typical of many internet users, these days – I get much less e-mail than I did in the old days, because I have moved on to other means of communication, such as instant messaging programs and social networking sites like Facebook.

E-mail remains an important part of my working life, but it has become a quite rare event for me to write a social e-mail to a friend.

My wife is currently in Brazil, following a course of studies at the University of Sao Paulo, but we seldom write each other; our communication usually takes the form of live chats or posted notes on Yahoo Messenger.

And even at work, I anticipate my dependence on e-mail will fade over time, as cellphone text messaging and Facebook-like communication become more common forms of doing business.

The internet’s original “killer app” is starting to look more dead than killer.

And, for my money, that is a darn good thing, because e-mail has been and remains the single largest curse that besets the internet.

Just as the babble of fools and hucksters lead to public abandonment of the old internet newsgroup services, the volume and threat of e-mail spam is driving people to find alternatives to communicate with each other more quietly and securely.

In fact, if it were not for the very good work done by e-mail service providers, e-mail would have collapsed in a welter of noise and disease years ago.

Only their on-going efforts on building better and better anti-spam filters keep the system functional at all.

Last year, 190 billion spam messages were sent out everyday – that’s right, 190 billion!

Current estimates are that 97 per cent of all e-mail messages currently passing through the internet are spam, and the problem is worsening by about 1.5 per cent per year.

Though most of us end-users see only the tiniest fraction of that amount – again, thanks to the good work of the anti-spammers – it represents a huge operational cost to every internet service provider, both in terms of the cost of creating and running the screens against spam, and the bandwidth costs they have to pay because they are receiving it.

One would think the spammers, faced with such low penetration rates for their messages, would get discouraged and give up, right?

Not so, because the stuff is so enormously cheap and easy to produce that the low success rates are perfectly acceptable.

About 200 spammer organizations are responsible for almost 80 per cent of all the spam in the world, and most of those organizations are running “botnets”- networks of hijacked home and business computers, which generate all that spam under the very noses of the computer owners, without their knowledge.

Researchers in the USA recently purposely infected some PCs with known botnet programs to see what they could do.

The two top-performing spam generators could produce 25,000 spam messages an hour, or 600,000 spams a day, on a single, typical home computer.

And, to make matters even sweeter, the business or home user is carrying all the production costs – the electricity to run the machine, the wear and tare on the hardware, and the bandwidth costs to send the stuff.

One of those botnet operations – a company called MyColo, in North Carolina – was hunted down and disconnected from the internet last November, which resulted in a 42 per cent drop the amount of spam – to a mere 112 billion messages a day.

By March of this year, though, other operators had picked up the slack, and the spam count was back to 97 per cent of all messages.

In other words, you can kick these guys around, but you can never kick them out of town.

Two things lie at the heart of the problem: The popularity and weakness of Microsoft’s e-mail programs, and basic design flaws in the electronic mail protocol itself.

One of the prime targets of botnet spammers is the address book associated with your Outlook Express or Windows Mail program.

If they can get their grubbies on that list, they can add it to the lists they raid from thousands of other “zombied” computers, and either use that list for their own spam, or sell it to some other spammer.

With so many naive users all using the same e-mail program, it is dead easy for the hackers to find exploits to break into it.

This problem will probably become less serious as more and more people move from home-run e-mail programs like Windows Mail to web-based services like Gmail, which do not leave valuable, vulnerable contact lists on your computer hard drive.

Of course, the spammers have other ways of harvesting e-mail addresses, and will find new ways to find them as the Windows Mail source dries up.

The more fundamental problem is the nature of the e-mail protocol itself, and its faults are not likely to be overcome any time soon, if ever.

Basically, the e-mail protocol was the product of an earlier, more community-minded and trusting time.

It was designed to let anybody send a message to anybody else in what was in the early days a small and well-mannered internet community.

Now, that internet community is a sprawling, crime-infested slum, and the e-mail protocol has no way of knowing the good citizens from the bad actors.

It is incurably naive, and sooner or later all of us are just going to have to close the door on the poor, dim little soul.

In the interim, all of us are stuck with it, including me.

For instance, I have to get this now-completed column in the e-mail to my editor.

Sure wish I had an alternative.

Rick Steele is a technology junkie

who lives in Whitehorse.

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