Forget electric cars. Or clean coal. Or CFL lightbulbs. The energy use to send spam could power 2.4 million homes, McAfee reckons.
McAfee announced new research findings revealing that spam is directly damaging to the environment by contributing massively to green house gas emissions.
Naturally, as a company selling numerous anti-spam solutions, McAfee has a vested interest in persuading companies and governments that spam is more than merely an annoyance, and could actually be sending the planet to certain doom.
However, if the company's figures are right, it does have a point.
McAfee’s “Carbon Footprint of Spam” study calculated the annual energy used to transmit, process and filter spam worldwide totals 33 billion kilowatt-hours (kWh), or 33 terawatt hours (TWh). That’s equivalent to the electricity used in 2.4 million homes, or the same greenhouse gas emissions as 3.1 million passenger cars using 7.6 billion litres of petrol.
“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.
Green advocates "stopping spam at its source" (an altruistic suggestion) as well as "investing in state-of-the-art spam filtering technology" (a partly profit-driven suggestion, though McAfee does say running software to block spam is more energy efficient than users having to do it manually.)
The 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, since fossil fuels are by far the largest source of electricity in the world today. Since emissions cannot be isolated to one country, it averaged its findings to arrive at the global impact.
Key findings of the study included:
- A single spam email generates 0.3 grams of carbon dioxide -- the same as driving a metre, but when multiplied by the yearly volume of spam, it is equivalent to driving around the earth 1.6 million times.
- Much of the energy consumption associated with spam (nearly 80 percent) comes from end-users deleting spam and searching for legitimate email (false positives). Spam filtering accounts for just 16 percent of spam-related energy use.
- Spam filtering saves 135 TWh of electricity per year. That is equivalent to taking 13 million cars off the road.
- 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 TWh per year, the equivalent of taking 2.3 million cars off the road.
- Countries with greater internet penetration had proportionately higher emissions per email user -- 38 times higher in the US than in Spain, for example.
- Australia came in about 10 percent lower than other countries in the survey.
In late 2008, a hosting company, McColo, a major source of online spam, was taken offline by its upstream internet providers and global spam volume dropped 70 percent immediately.
According to McAfee, the energy saved in the ensuing lull before spammers rebuilt their sending capacity equated 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.
Perhaps it's time for governments around the world to start going after spammers with their environmental protection agencies and/or SWAT teams rather than leaving it up to "the IT guy" to solve the problem. Or perhaps we should all just switch to Gmail, with Google's astonishingly effective antispam.
What do you think? Is this a ruse by McAfee to sell more software, based on bogus figures, or does the correlation between massive spam volumes and wasted energy ring true with you?