On Day 8 of Network Visibility, I Discovered My First Spam

Harry Quackenboss By: Harry Quackenboss January 13, 2017

Ontogeny Recapitulates Phylogeny

I don’t mean that I sent one, I mean one that I received.

In the 1970s, I worked for Honeywell Information Systems in technical marketing for the Multics operating system. Some of you may have heard about the system or studied it in college. It was a collaboration among AT&T Bell Laboratories, GE’s computer business (subsequently acquired by Honeywell) and MIT, with funding from ARPA (later renamed DARPA), to build a “Computer Utility.” The UNIX operating system, developed by Ken Thompson and Dennis Ritchie at Bell Labs, was heavily influenced by Multics. To dumb it down, Multics was a mainframe time-sharing system, and to say it was ahead of its time is an understatement. More about it here.

Multics had an electronic mail system that we simply called mail. This was before FAX machines, and the way companies communicated with remote locations, even among their own departments, was with Telexes and similar networks, which were only slightly more advanced than a telegram. The Multics development and marketing organizations used electronic mail (what we now call email), but various other Honeywell employees who had nothing to do with the Multics product line also used it instead of Telexes. Since the internal Honeywell Multics systems were indirectly connected to ARPANET, users on other ARPANET-connected computers could exchange mail.


One day I received an electronic chain letter. For those who don’t know what a chain letter is, in the days when folks sent postal mail, occasionally you might receive a letter, addressed to you, from someone you barely knew, with instructions to send letters to the six or so names and addresses written at the end of the letter. Some were supposed to pass on good luck, and gently threatened misfortune if you broke the chain. Others involved sending money with promises of riches. 

In this case, the electronic chain letter was supposed to bring good luck to me, as well as the six people I was supposed to send it to, but bring misfortune if I failed to forward it along, which it did.

This misfortune came in the form of a crashed Multics system within hours of me receiving the chain email. The crash happened because so many copies of the chain email were sent that it consumed all of the available disk storage (at the time, probably something like 100 Gigabytes), which forced an emergency shutdown.

From that day forward, the way I viewed email changed because even though it was the first and only malicious email I had ever received, I knew it wasn’t going to be the last. Little did I know.

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