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Study: Your Inbox Isn't the Only Thing Spammers Pollute

Study: Your Inbox Isn't the Only Thing Spammers Pollute

Spam emails, it seems, aren't just a bunch of electronic hot air -- they actually contribute to higher CO2 emissions, according to a study sponsored by McAfee, a vendor that happens to sell anti-spam products. Researchers arrived at the figure by looking at the energy required by various servers and computers to get a given amount of data across the Internet. Skeptics of the study have their misgivings.

By Richard Adhikari
04/16/09 11:44 AM PT

We know spammers are often the crooks behind online fraud, ID theft, data breaches and other acts of cybercrime. Now, however, we've learn that they're guilty of jacking up the planet's CO2 emission count as well.

The average spam message generates 0.3 grams of CO2, according to a study conducted by consultant firm ICF International for security vendor McAfee, which has a vested interest in anti-spam products.

Multiply that 0.3 grams by the approximately 62 trillion spam e-mails sent out in 2008, and that adds up to 17 million metric tons of CO2, or 0.2 percent of total global CO2 emissions, the report states.

That sounds scary, but are the figures correct? Also, what if there were no spam at all? Would physical junk mail be worse?

Of Angels and Heads of Pins

How can anyone count the amount of CO2 given off by spam, anyway? ICF's own figures show that the average e-mail gives off 0.4 grams of CO2, 30 percent more than the average spam message.

Asked why, Cody Taylor, senior energy and climate consultant at ICF, told TechNewsWorld that spam messages are typically smaller than regular e-mails and so require less energy from the servers involved in getting the message from point A to point B. "Often, spam doesn't have attachments we send each other in regular e-mails, like our vacation pictures," he added.

He's got a point -- assuming, of course, the average vacationer doesn't know about Picasa and other online photo services like Snapfish, Photobucket and Shutterfly.

Counting Off the Numbers

Then we come to the question of Google searches. A brouhaha erupted in January when the Sunday Times of London quoted Harvard physicist Alex Wissner-Gross as saying that a single Google search generates 7 grams of CO2.

After howls of outrage from Google, Wissner-Gross said he was misquoted and, ultimately, accepted Google's statement that the average Google query consumes energy equal to emitting about 0.2 grams of CO2.

Averages are funny things when you think about them -- the average U.S. family has, what, 2.1 cars and 3.1 children? However, let's accept Google's figure as correct for now. How could a Google search consume less electricity and hence be responsible for less CO2 than a single spam? Google claims its figure includes building the search index, but ICF's Taylor disagrees.

What Is Truth?

"The real trick is determining exactly how they came up with these figures in the first place," said Charles King, principal at analyst firm Pund-IT, who's taken a somewhat skeptical view of ICF's calculations. "And don't forget, the company that sponsored this study sells spam filters," he told TechNewsWorld.

How did ICF calculate the amount of CO2 a spam is responsible for? "We start from the spammers collecting e-mail addresses, then their writing spam messages, sending them to zombie computers and e-mail servers over the Internet, transmission to business servers or ISPs' servers, and down to individual PCs," ICF's Taylor said.

The basic unit of measure is the energy required to move 1 MB of data over the Internet. From that, ICF figured out how much energy would be required to transmit one spam e-mail over the Web, averaging out the size of spam e-mails.

Then ICF calculated how much energy a PC uses over a year, broke that down into individual activities such as reading e-mail and performing other tasks, and prorated the amount of energy spent on e-mails broken out by spam and legitimate e-mails. Finally, ICF added the figure for spam transmission over the Internet to that of the energy consumed by a PC when its user deals with a spam email.

The Lesser of Two Evils?

So, if all the spam in the world were stopped, what would happen? Chances are, some spammers would revert to sending physical junk mail. Not all the spammers, of course -- physical mail costs a lot more to send than e-mail does.

However, we definitely would get more physical junk mail, and that would jack up the planet's CO2 ratio far more than e-mail would. "It requires gasoline for postal workers to deliver the mail, and there's the consumption of energy for felling trees, transporting the lumber, the sawmills, paper production, printing and making the ink," King said. "Spam is the lesser of the two evils, as a whole."

"The spam problem will never go away," Dave Marcus, director of security research and communications for McAfee Avert Labs, told TechNewsWorld. "The trick is to manage the problem by filtering spam to keep it out of end users' inbox."


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