Spam as a privacy issue

Part one of our nine-part series on managing spam.

About the book


For many companies and individuals, spam is an annoyance and undesired expense. This series excerpt from Privacy: What Developers and IT Professionals Should Know offers advice on what we can do to fight spam, how we can protecting legitimate e-mail and develop e-mail-friendly solutions.

Author J. C. CANNON, privacy strategist at Microsoft's Corporate Privacy Group, specializes in implementing application technologies that maximize consumer control over privacy, and enable developers to create privacy-aware applications. Cannon organized Microsoft's Privacy Response Center, an automated resource for tracking privacy issues throughout Microsoft. He works closely with Microsoft product groups and external developers to help them build privacy into applications. He also contributed the chapter on privacy to Michael Howard's Writing Secure Code. Cannon has spent nearly twenty-five years in software development.

Sample Chapter is provided courtesy of Addison Wesley Professional.

Most people consider spam to be any unsolicited e-mail that they might receive that attempts to sell them something. It can also include e-mails with chain letters, political statements, or messages from people who just need some attention. Although some people might think that the e-mail version of spam was named after the food SPAM, because both are considered tasteless and a waste of time (at least to some people), nothing could be further from the truth. (As an aside, SPAM is served during breakfast at McDonald's in Hawaii, where it has the highest consumption rate per capita in the United States.)

The origin of the use of the term spam for unsolicited e-mail appears to come from the Monty Python skit about SPAM. The Vikings in the skit annoyed a waitress by repeating the word spam over and over again. In much the same way, unsolicited e-mail can elicit the feeling of annoyance in people who receive it. The way in which the Monty Python skit was connected to the act of unsolicited communication came from the Multi-User Dungeon (MUD) community. One member of that community, after becoming upset with his treatment by some of the other members, created a macro to repeat the word spam several times in the MUD environment during a sacred hatching. Later on, MUD members would refer to the event as the time they got "spammed."

Spam as a privacy issue
In 1928, Justice Louis D. Brandeis wrote, "They conferred, as against the government, the right to be left alone—the most comprehensive of rights and the right most valued by civilized men." The right to be left alone became the battle cry of many privacy advocates. Spam is considered an invasion of a right that is categorized as communication privacy. Just as you would not want a stranger knocking on your door, calling you on the phone, or following you down the street, receiving unsolicited mail is an infringement of your right to be left alone. The receipt of spam can also be considered a violation of your right to determine for yourself when, how, and to what extent information about you is used.

Users should always be in charge of how and when they are contacted. Even after agreeing to be contacted, users should be able to opt out of future contacts. Continuing to contact someone after he or she has opted out of contact, or not providing a way to opt out of contact, is akin to electronic stalking. Respecting your customers' privacy is a good way to earn their trust and their loyalty. As a consumer, demand that online services respect your privacy. This chapter provides several ways for you to fight back against spammers and discusses how to send commercial e-mail without becoming a bane of society.
Next section: The cost of spam

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This was first published in April 2005

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