McAfee: It

When end users purge unwanted spam from their inboxes, the potential environmental impact of hitting that delete button is probably the last thing on their minds. But Santa Clara, Calif.-based McAfee Inc. said the act of deleting spam and searching for legitimate e-mail contributes to green house gas (GHG) emissions equivalent to 3.1 million passenger cars using 2 billion gallons of gasoline annually.

Or that’s also 33 billion kilowatt hours annually, equivalent to the electricity used in 2.4 million homes. Whatever the illustration, spam nonetheless “has a quantifiable impact on the environment,” said Dave Marcus, director of security researcher and communications for McAfee Avert Labs.

The statistics are part of a study entitled Carbon Footprint of Spam released by McAfee, based on research by climate-change researchers and spam experts.

End users’ thoughts regarding spam purging is typically one of irritation, then perhaps followed by a recognition that the spam is associated with cybercrime and malware. But Marcus said the environment doesn’t normally factor in the equation, especially if a single spam amounts to a mere 0.3 grams of carbon dioxide, actually “just a little puff of carbon” or like driving three feet.

“But when you look at the (yearly) volume, that is where the numbers become interesting,” said Marcus, explaining that the volume of spam over a year equates to driving around the earth 1.6 million times.

Admittedly, in the grand scheme of things, that’s not a tremendously large environmental impact, Marcus said, but “deleting spam and pruning their own mailboxes is where 80 per cent of the actual spam energy utilization comes from.”

The lesson is having better end user education regarding avoiding being spammed in the first place, and using better spam filter technologies for when you are spammed, because spam filtering saves electricity equivalent to taking 13 million cars off the road, said Marcus.

The environmental damage caused by spammers should have legal repercussions in much the same way that corporate entities are held responsible, said Marcus. “The green movement is very powerful and it certainly is the right thing to do,” he said. “If they hold companies and corporate entities accountable for their impact on the environment, why wouldn’t you hold the criminal liable for their impact on the environment?”

That said, Marcus said the association between GHG emissions and purging spam at the end user level is still at the “embryonic, very early stages” and too new to effect short-term change in legislation.

Darin Stahl, lead research analyst with London, Ont.-based Info-Tech Research Group Ltd., said possible legal repercussions for spammers “gets to the heart of the matter” instead of pointing the finger at the end user for not employing a spam filter.

End users are not the issue here, because they aren’t the ones creating the spam to begin with, said Stahl. Even if there is a spam filter in place, that spam has already been “sent out over at least two large Cisco routers, traveled the world, and finally it comes into my router … what we’ve saved is me clicking on the delete button.”

In the overall production of spam, Stahl said deleting it at the target isn’t going to reduce the amount of spam or green house gases. In fact, the environmental impact of purging spam and searching for legitimate e-mail is likely not on the minds of end users, said Stahl. “So what if an end user is saying, golly gee, it’s an Inconvenient Spam – to borrow from Al Gore – what are they going to do about it?”

“If this gets a dialogue started, fine,” said Stahl. “But at its heart it’s really aimed at getting users to buy products and put it on their local PC. And there isn’t anything wrong with using good security tools.”

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