Analyst questions environmental impact of spam

A recent report on the environmental impact of spam is interesting but is based on a “bad premise,” according to a Canadian analyst.

Last week, Santa Clara, Calif.-based McAfee Inc. published “Carbon Footprint of Spam,” which says the electricity used to for spam worldwide is equivalent to the electricity used in 2.4 million homes.

McAfee makes software designed to filter spam.

The report, written on behalf of McAfee by ICF International of Fairfax, Va., said 62 trillion spam e-mails were sent in 2008, and they consumed 33 billion kiloWatt hours of electricity. The company estimated worldwide, this energy released as much carbon dioxide into the air as 3.1 billion cars using two billion gallons of gasoline.

ICF calculated this in part by estimating the energy used by consumer’s PCs as they sort through their e-mail folders.

Globally, ICF estimates spam energy at 22 kWh per user per year. Though some of this energy is actually used by spam filters, the report says 52 per cent of the energy expended as a result of spam is that expended by users’ PCs while they are viewing spam and another 27 per cent is expended by PCs while users are dealing with false positives.

“I think it’s a bad premise,” said Darin Stahl, lead analyst with the London, Ont.-based Info-Tech Research Group. “If I was not spending all that time getting rid of the spam that hit my Outlook Express … I don’t think it s reasonable to think that the PC is going to be turned off. I think the PC is going to be used for different things.”

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Info-Tech has done studies on energy use showing if users did “more aggressive power management” on 1,500 machines, “we’d pull about 64 cars off the road.”

Network World Canada asked the primary author, Cody Taylor, if we can assume that if spam filters were 100 per cent effective, we can then assume that each user would use 11 kWh less electricity only if their PCs were powered down and they did not use the time they would have spent viewing spam on other activities with their computer in power-active mode.

Taylor, ICF’s senior energy and climate consultant, replied in an e-mail: “If all of us had 100 per cent effective spam filters and never looked at another spam message and as a result each of our computers spent a few less minutes turned on, we would save energy.”

But he added the hardware used by the Internet and other network providers would still use energy.

“Even if everyone had a 100 per cent-effective spam filter on their desktop PCs and never looked at another spam message, energy would still be used by the equipment performing the activities further upstream,” he wrote.

“For example, the spam messages would still require Internet capacity to transmit them.”

Canada accounted for 872 million kWh per year of spam of electricity consumer in spam. Of this, 457 million kWh were expended on viewing spam, 238 million kWh on deleting false positives and 143 million kWh on false positives. Two per cent of this, or 19 million kWh per year, was on the Internet infrastructure.

ICF broke the energy use down by region, even accounting for the proportion of power coming from “clean” power generating plants. But the report says: “not all energy use shown actually occurs in the named country because a portion of the energy ICF accounts for is embodied energy used to manufacture users’ PCs.

In calculating the energy expended as a result of users viewing and deleting spam – and looking for false positives in their spam folders – ICF cited a report, by Kurt Roth and Kurtis McKenney, submitted to the Consumer Electronics Association (CEA). That report says PCs use 75 Watts in active mode and the average consumer has it in active mode for 2,954 hours per year. ICF also estimated worldwide, 104 billion user hours go toward reading and deleting spam.

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