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Bill Gates, Steve Ballmer, and Spam

In a recent AP story, Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer was quoted as saying that Bill Gates "literally receives 4 million pieces of email per day, most of it spam." Fascinating! It implies that Gates is still using the classic [email protected] address, which makes no sense. It’s not as if he wants to be accessible to everyone on the Internet who might like to send him email, so I can’t see why he wouldn’t just use an unpublished address for everything.

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The quote also implies a huge level of malevolence on the part of spammers. I’ve been using [email protected] on the Internet since the early 1990s, and my address shows up weekly in email on tens of thousands of computers (some of which are undoubtedly PCs infected with email address-gathering worms), on the Web, and even in Usenet news. For all that, searching Google today for my address turns up 9,670 hits, compared to only 5,390 for Gates’s. It’s not surprising – you don’t see Bill Gates popping up in public mailing lists or putting his address on public Web pages. So why should my spam load (pre-Postini) have been only about 1,000 messages per day, whereas Gates gets 4 million per day? All I can think is that he’s being targeted directly by spam and worms, which makes me wonder even more why the address would be active when it’s obviously being used as the target of an ongoing denial-of-service attack.

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Ballmer also said that Microsoft has special technology just for filtering the spam out of Gates’s incoming email, and it’s bolstered by several Microsoft employees dedicated to the task of ensuring that Gates doesn’t see any spam at all. I’m sure it’s effective in the end, but come on: why not install some real spam-filtering technology that doesn’t require, as Ballmer puts it, "a whole department almost" to clean up after it. Or just forget about it and turn off the darn account!

Of course, as Todd Bishop of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer clarified by contacting a Microsoft spokesperson, a more likely explanation for the entire situation is that Ballmer’s speaking style often leaves room for interpretation, apparently a highly useful trait in a CEO.

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What about Ballmer himself? He claims that he is "probably also among the most spammed people in the world" because he gives out his email address whenever he makes a speech. That could imply that Ballmer’s speeches are heavily attended by spammers, since publicizing his address in a speech to honest, law-abiding citizens wouldn’t result in him receiving spam. I’m not sure I’d be proud of addressing spammers so frequently. More realistically, I suspect he doesn’t understand how spammers operate. On the Internet, where spammers are known to trawl for email addresses because it’s easier than attending keynote presentations and taking notes, Ballmer’s address, [email protected], elicits only 868 hits in Google right now, and that’s about triple where it was before Google started indexing all the news stories on this topic.

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Sorry, Steve, it’s not the talks. The only sensible conclusion is that spammers are targeting you too, just like Bill. The real question is if other big company CEO-types are being similarly attacked, or if Microsoft could somehow, and I certainly couldn’t imagine how, tweaked off a bunch of people over the years?

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