Back in April, McAfee launched an experiment designed as a tribute to Morgan Spurlock's Super-Size Me documentary on eating nothing but McDonald's food for 30 days. Instead of fast food, however, McAfee gathered a group of some 50 volunteers from Australia, Brazil, France, Germany, Italy, Mexico, The Netherlands, Spain, the US, and the UK. Once this elite group of sacrificial goats brave souls had been assembled, McAfee put them on a diet of pure spam.
No, we're not referring to the creamy mounds of whipped pig nestled inside a pop-top containerâ€”although 30 days of eating it might make an interesting experiment in and of itselfâ€”but the kind of spam that arrives via your inbox and tempts you with online degrees, job offers, free XBox 360s, and magnanimous gifts from your great-uncle Dmitri back in Russia.
McAfee ran its S.P.A.M. (Spammed Persistently All Month) campaign from April 1 to May 1. There don't appear to be any official details of how the contest was run, but five UK participants in the program were asked to blog about their experience on a daily basis. Based on their early entries (available here), it seems that McAfee distributed new laptops to the group specifically for the purposes of the experiment. The volunteers then ran around the 'Net on their own, signing up for free offers, new web sites, and all the other various goodies the bowels of the Internet purport to offer.
The five bloggers chose different initial approaches. Danielle started by googling for "free stuff," Dan went for freebie funny clips, and Simon cut straight to the chase by hunting for Viagra. It didn't take long for spam to start trickling inâ€”multiple people report receiving spam within hours of registering at a siteâ€”and that trickle steadily grew into first a river and then a flood as the days passed. At the end of 30 days, Simon had collected 7,084 spam emails, Danielle had 2,131, and Vic was apparently just under 2,000. Simon's decision to chase the Viagra market may not have done anything for his sex life, but it did substantially enlarge his inbox.
If you ever wanted concrete proof that the "Don't share my information with other companies" and "Stop emailing me" options on a web site are often useless, it's here. It's impossible to know which companies share data and which don't, but registering with the "do not share my e-mail" option ticked didn't appear to reduce spam in any way. Some of the bloggers reported a drop in the amount of spam they were receiving on a day-to-day basis when they unsubscribed from certain services, but the trend is not particularly strong.
The BBC ran a story and interview with Leslie Finlayson, who participated in the experiment. She reports receiving 23,751 emails in three months (the official experiment was only 30 days long), despite the fact that she began unsubscribing to services as early as the second week of the test. As she states, "It would appear that reputable companies are selling on our e-mail addresses to less reputable companies, which then go along the line until you get this kind of rubbish coming through your inbox."
McAfee's experiment is an excellent example of how even the most basic safe surfing techniques can have a profound impact on a person's overall "Internet experience." Leslie received an average of 264 spam e-mails per day, while Simon followed at 236. Even 2,000 e-mails in 30 days equates to 67 per day, and that's enough to be annoying. Keeping one's e-mail address relatively private is a simple way to cut down on spam. Teaching Grandpa why punching the monkey is bad, however, could take some doing.