The origin and future of spam and other online intrusions

July 25, 2019

From a confidence trick originating in the late 19th century, to sophisticated AI that can manipulate reality, recreating anyone's face or voice with almost pinpoint accuracy--spam has come a long way.

But what does the future of digital spam look like, what risks could it pose to our personal security and privacy, and what can we do to fight it?

In a new paper, which appeared in the August 2019 issue of Communications of the ACM (CACM), Emilio Ferrara, a USC research assistant professor in computer science and research team leader at USC Viterbi's Information Sciences Institute, tracks the evolution of digital spam and explores its complex, and often surprising, history.

"The fight against spam is a constant arms race," said Ferrara, who specializes in computational social sciences and is an expert in social media bots. "Scams not only exploit technical vulnerabilities; they exploit human ones."

Social media spam bots, which automatically produce content and interact with humans, have allowed spammers to scale their operations to an unprecedented level. (Ferrara explores this in his 2016 CACM paper, The Rise of Social Bots).

Since bots have been used for a variety of nefarious scenarios, from manipulation of political discussions to the spread of conspiracy theories and false news, the stakes are high. In the future, Ferrara believes that deepfake technologies could be abused by well-resourced spammers to create AIs pretending to be human.

Milestones in Spam History:Facts:
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University of Southern California

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