A week ahead of Earth Day, McAfee is offering insights into spam's impact on the environment. McAfee's research reveals that spam is not only a nuisance that hinders business productivity, it also damages the environment and contributes to greenhouse gas emissions.
On Tuesday, McAfee released a study, Carbon Footprint of Spam. The study spells out the findings of climate-change researchers and spam experts: Globally the annual energy used to transmit, process and filter spam totals 33 billion kilowatt-hours, or 33 terawatt hours. That's equivalent to the electricity used in 2.4 million homes, with the same greenhouse gas emissions as 3.1 million passenger cars using two billion gallons of gasoline.
"As the world faces the growing problem of climate change, this study highlights that spam has an immense financial, personal and environmental impact on businesses and individuals," said Jeff Green, senior vice president of product development and McAfee Avert Labs. "Stopping spam at its source, as well investing in state-of-the-art spam-filtering technology, will save time and money, and will pay dividends to the planet by reducing carbon emissions as well."
A Day without Spam
McAfee points to late 2008 as an example of the potential energy savings of stopping spam. When McColo, a major source of online spam, was taken offline, global spam volume dropped 70 percent. According to McAfee, the energy saved during the time it took spammers to rebuild their sending capacity was equal to taking 2.2 million cars off the road that day, proving the impact of the 62 trillion spam e-mails that are sent each year.
The Carbon Footprint of Spam study looked at global energy expended to create, store, view and filter spam across 11 countries, including Australia, Brazil, Canada, China, France, Germany, Japan, India, Mexico, Spain, the United States, and the United Kingdom. It correlated the electricity spent on spam with its carbon footprint and averaged the findings to offer an overall global impact.
According to the study, the average greenhouse emission associated with a single spam message is 0.3 grams. That's like driving three feet, but that mushrooms to the equivalent of driving around the Earth 1.6 million times when the yearly volume of spam is totaled. What's more, nearly 80 percent of energy consumption associated with spam comes from end users deleting spam and searching for legitimate e-mail that lands in their junk box.
Is This Environmental Hype?
By contrast, spam filtering accounts for just 16 percent of spam-related energy use.
Spam filtering saves 135 terawatt hours of electricity per year. That is equivalent to taking 13 million cars off the road. McAfee figures if every inbox were protected by a state-of-the-art spam filter, organizations and individuals could reduce today's spam energy by 75 percent, or 25 terawatt hours per year. That's the equivalent of taking 2.3 million cars off the road.
As John Levine, author of Fighting Spam For Dummies and a member of the Industry Canada Task Force on Spam, sees it, McAfee's argument isn't persuasive. "Most spam is sent from hijacked consumer PCs," he said, "so you have to make some pretty aggressive assumptions that they'd be powered down if they weren't running their spamware."