by Brian McWilliams
If you’re anything like your average email recipient, you’re probably receiving at least as much spam in your inbox these days as legitimate email. Where does it come from? Why is there so damn much of it? Who in the hell buys this stuff? Does that Acme 5×24 series time transducing capacitor have built-in temporal displacement? All perfectly reasonable questions.
Truly interested in getting some answers (not solutions, mind you)? Then consider picking up a copy of O’Reilly Media’s Spam Kings, which hails itself as “the real story behind the high-rolling hucksters pushing porn, pills and @*#?% enlargements”. Author Brian McWilliams delivers just that with a twisted expose into the lives of the bizarre creatures who somehow make a living filling your inbox with some of the most oddball advertising pitches of all time. Now, I’m a network administrator, and having dealt with mail administration issues for a few different organizations over the past half dozen years, spam prevention is a subject close to my geeky heart. That said, my review is a bit biased; it’s clear that this book wasn’t written for people intimately familiar with the problem on a technical level, but rather for your average email recipient who is wondering just where the hell all this garbage comes from and how someone could possibly make money pumping it. And that’s just fine, as it answers these questions quite well.
The net is cast quite wide to survey the actions of a number of people on both sides of the battlefield, but the author (in full-on investigative journalism mode) spends most of his time following Davis Wolfgang Hawke, neo-Nazi turned penis pill pusher, and anti-spam activist Susan Gunn (aka Shiksaa), one of the denizens of news.admin.net-abuse.email during the late 1990s and early 2000s. Other mentions include spam entrepeneur Scott Richter, Steve Linford of the Spamhaus Project, and the infamous Dr. Fatburn. Oh, and Brian? Thanks for devoting at least a few pages to my personal all-time favorite spammer, Robert “Robbie” Todino, AKA the Time Travel Spammer. I’m hoping that the next printing of the book comes with trading cards (collect them all!), and if so, I’ve got first dibs on the Todino ones.
McWilliams does a fantastic job at recreating the series of events that interconnect the lives of this colorful cast of characters, but he’s obviously a technology reporter, not a technologist. Many elementary concepts are over-explained or presented in a way that makes them seem completely magical, and there is precious little detail given regarding some of the more advanced developments in spam and anti-spam warfare. But I digress; I suppose the simple truth of the matter is that most people wouldn’t enjoy a thorough technical and psychological dissection of this topic nearly as much as I would, and although his writing isn’t perfect and knowledge of the topic not all-encompassing, the author manages to create something that is above all else entertaining and accessible to just about anyone. Along the way, he ends up humanizing both the strange creatures that the book is named after as well as the equally vigilant anti-spammer community that evolved to combat these elusive forces of email darkness. There are definitely some tasty bits here and there, and the tongue-in-cheek Jerry Springer-esque humor is plentiful. The author seems to acknowledge that this is the O’Reilly version of confrontational trash television, and takes the opportunity to revel in it. It’s at these moments when the book is truly at its best.
Spam Kings is an interesting psychoanalysis of the lives of a number of prolific spammers, their goofball associates, and their sworn enemies. Your average spam recipient will no doubt be equally amused and sickened by some of the events described, and it should shed some light on the situation as a whole and why it is what it is today.
For those of us who are a little closer to the problem, well there’s not a whole lot to learn on a technical level, and we may find ourselves rolling our eyes at times, but even at its worst, Spam Kings delivers an intriguing portrait of some of the real dregs of Internet society. Well worth the read, if you’ve got spare time after cleaning out your influx of junk mail.
Spam Kings: www.oreilly.com/catalog/spamkings