Why Spammers and Virus Programmers Are Worse Than They Might ThinkNovember 16, 2009
New media, in case you haven’t noticed, have made it wonderfully and horrifically easier to send information to people you know and don’t know. The upside here is that it has been a boon to staying in touch with people, and communicating information to people who might well be interested, but might not yet be aware of you. The downside, of course, is the ever-increasing threat of spam and computer viruses.
I get that it is inevitable people will abuse the system. Some people will be able to sleep at night after a day of pummeling people’s inboxes, Twitter accounts, etc. with unwanted junk that unfortunately enough people will opt into to sustain the viability of this tactic. And, some people will have some kind of bone to pick with, say, Microsoft, that they will be able to sleep at night knowing that they stuck it to some adversary, outweighing the tremendous inconvenience it causes to otherwise innocent people just trying to get on with their lives in the digital world.
The reality is, this issue isn’t black and white. People have reasons for this behavior. And give them enough time, they can probably produce a pretty convincing argument for why they do what they do.
The problem is, there’s a downside that most of these spammers and virus programmers probably never have to face: the impact it has on people in developing countries. In the name of putting their interests first, they make it that much harder to lift people out of poverty and promote independence for the 2 billion plus people living on less than $2 a day. For whatever reason spammers and virus programmers do what they do, as they go to sleep at night, they should factor in the impact on all those people out there that can’t even satisfy their basic needs (i.e. food, water, shelter, health care, etc.).
Why viruses are worse than virus programmers might think
A lot of people and organizations in developing countries don’t have the money to buy the latest security software or operating systems with better security built in, making them much more susceptible to viruses. There is already enough stacked against them, now we are adding a human-constructed problem to their stack. Viruses can destroy data permanently, causing people to lose information. Viruses can also cost people work hours, work days, or even work weeks. Viruses can attack computers that are vital to people’s survival, such as those that are in hospitals and law enforcement agencies. Viruses can cripple or at least impair computers run by aid and development organizations that are just trying to help people satisfy their basic needs. In so many of these situations, the inflicted really don’t have the money or resources to replace what has been lost in technology, data, or time. People and organizations in developing countries tend to function under far greater constraints than those in developed countries.
In a perfect world, people and organizations would have backup mechanisms where they could just flip a switch and all would be okay with their computers. But then, in a perfect world, over 2 billion people wouldn’t be living on less than $2 a day.
Why spam is worse than spammers might think
This follows a very similar logic to the issue of viruses. For every message sent to a person or an organization in a developing country, there is the opportunity cost of time not spent helping someone, getting work done, taking whatever steps are necessary to turn a developing country into a developed one, or at the very least getting food, water, shelter, etc. to people facing extreme need. Every time someone gets an email that is spam, there is that opportunity cost. Every time someone is followed on Twitter by a spammer, and that person or NGO takes the path that conventional wisdom recommends, and clicks on the notification to see who that person is (since Twitter is all about connections and relationships, and the more you have, the better, generally speaking), there is that opportunity cost. This situation is only exacerbated when someone mistakenly answers one of these emails, or clicks on a link from a Twitter spammer that results in some kind of hack, or worse.
For those of us who have been on the receiving end of viruses and spam, we know how much of an annoyance, at best, they can be. Now imagine the effect that can have where resources are even more scarce than a lot of us are accustomed to. Now think of this on the aggregate, across a whole country, across a continent, across everywhere directly impacted by extreme poverty. Suddenly, someone’s get rich quick scam or “message” to some corporate evil becomes arguably criminal, when you think of the lives already struggling enough that now have to struggle through spam and viruses, too.
I don’t have numbers on this, at the moment. However, what I do have is direct personal experience. I have worked on infected computers in places like Ukraine and Ghana, and have experienced first hand how much time, money, resources can be lost to viruses. And, I have run and participated in my share of online resources, like Google Groups, for communication and collaboration between development workers that have been attacked by spammers, with messages about get rich quick schemes, personal appendage elongation, and chatting with people marketing themselves in “the world’s oldest profession”. In our development work, every second I, and my development colleagues, have lost to spam and viruses is a second the world’s poor and disenfranchised have lost, too.
So, for all of you out there spamming and programming viruses, keep this in mind: you have even more bad karma in your humanity account than you probably think.
And for those of you who read, or at least scrolled, to the bottom of this post, a treat for you from Monty Python:
Photo 1: Ah, Spam. Courtesy of