Spam: once a gross meat-like substance sold in tins that could probably survive a nuclear apocalypse.
Now, it’s the stuff that clogs your inbox: penis pills and health insurance and lottery winnings and nursing degrees and whatever else spammers think they can convince at least a small percentage of people to spend money on.
I’m not sure if these are scams, but according to Brian Kreb’s Spam Nation, at least in the heyday of the pharmaceutical spam era, most people actually got what they paid for.
Spam Nation: The Inside Story of Organized Cybercrime-from Global Epidemic to Your Front Door covers the relationships between two rival Russian spammers and their crews, the gaggle of hackers and programmers that orbit them, and the consequences of their war on the world, through the Internet.
The book definitely presents a relevant, topical subject. Spam is the bane of the Information Age because it never ends, because it clogs up our inboxes, and because, despite the growing sophistication of anti-spam filters, some still make it through.
Indeed, spam email has become the primary impetus for the development of malicious software… These botnets are virtual parasites that require care and constant feeding to stay one step ahead of antivirus tools and security firms that work to dismantle the networks. To keep their bot colonies thriving, spammers … must work constant to spread and mutate the digital disorders that support them… Botnet operators need to continuously attack and seize control over additional computers and create new ways to infiltrate previously infected ones.
Spam is supported by millions of computers around the world–any one of the many computers you have used in your lifetime may have been part of it. And if you have been used as a carrier for spam, you may have been infected by a bot whose patron was one of two Russian master cybercriminals: Igor Gusev or Pavel Vrublevski.
Krebs presents compelling stories about these two figures: an early collaboration, a falling out, and a devastating rivalry that unravelled the spamming underworld. Unfortunately, the stories weren’t always easy to follow.
Some of the chapters seemed out of place, or out of time. Although I was interested to learn about those who order and consume pills from spammy pharmacies, I felt it wasn’t really what the book was about. It distracted me from the main story and just got in the way of actually understanding the bigger narrative.
Don’t get me wrong: it’s an excellent piece of investigative journalism. But being good at writing short-form pieces doesn’t automatically a good book make. I feel like the structure could have been revised, the narrative clarified. The “who’s who” list at the beginning definitely helps, but I felt lost more often than I wanted to be.
There is definitely plenty to learn from Spam Nation. I was fascinated by the political, social and criminal surroundings that enable such large operations to operate with impunity for so long. But the book too often swerved away from the meat of the story for my taste. A shorter book with a tighter narrative would have been just as satisfying, and just as effective.
It’s a good read though, if you can just remember to stay focused on the main story. It’s accessible too, without too much technical jargon to bog the writing down. If the origin and nature of all the emails you get but never read interests you, this is a good way to spend a few hours.
This review first appeared on The Cryptosphere.