16 October 2008

Why We Need More Spam

Jerry Fishenden is not somebody you'd expect me to see eye-to-eye with much:

Jerry Fishenden is Microsoft UK's lead technology advisor, strategist and spokesman. Since being appointed to the role in 2004, Jerry has been responsible for helping to guide Microsoft's vision for how technology can transform the way we learn, live, work and play. He plays a key role in an international team of technology officers who work closely with Craig Mundie, Microsoft's Chief Research and Strategy Officer. Jerry's popular blog on issues of technology and policy can be found at http://ntouk.com.

But he's put up an excellent analysis of all that's wrong with the UK Government's proposed super-snooping database that's all-the-stronger for being much more moderate in tone than mine often are:

I remain unconvinced that we should be using technology to progressively build a panopticon here in the UK. Technology has a huge upside that we should be using positively, not allowing its more toxic potential to erode our long cherished liberties.

But what really caught my attention was the following point about weaknesses in the plan:

scale and volume: at Microsoft, last time I looked we were having to deal with some 3 billion spam emails a day through our Hotmail/Windows Live Mail service. Let alone the volume of legitimate emails. The Independent states that about one trillion emails and more than 60 billion text messages will be sent in Britain this year, and that most homes and offices now have a computer, with an estimated 20 million broadband connections. That's a serious volume of data and a serious data centre or data centres we're potentially talking about - let about the analytics then required to make sense of that data.

Yes, of course: what we need to do is *increase* the volume of spam, say, a thousand-fold - easy enough to do if you sign up for a few obviously dodgy Web sites, and reply to a few spam messages with your address. That would be inconvenient for us, but not a problem given the efficiency of spam filters these days (Gmail catches about 99.5% of the spam that I receive). But multiplying the quantity of information that the UK Government's super-snooping database would need to hold by a factor of one thousand would really cause the rivets to pop. And once databases scale up to cope with that, we just turn up the spam volume a little more.

Perhaps the same approach could be applied to Web browsing: you could write an add-in for Firefox that pulls in thousands of random pages from the Internet every day (text only). This, again, would add enormously to the storage requirements of any database, and make finding stuff much harder.

If the UK Government wants to live by technology abuse, then let it die by technology abuse. Alternatively, it might try actually listening to what people like Fishenden and countless other IT experts say about how unworkable this scheme is, and work *with* us rather *against* us on this matter....


Anonymous said...

I occasionally cite a tongue-in-cheek comment, "There's no point in having power if you can't abuse it."

Seems the Government take it seriously.

Glyn Moody said...

And I suppose the corollary would be, "there's no point in having *serious* power if you can't *seriously* abuse it..."