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How Email Became An Important Yet Complex & Abused Solution

  • Jul 12, 2019
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  • by Ryan Flowers

Regardless of where you host your email, it’s likely that you have experienced an issue or two in the past. Perhaps you’ve experienced bounces, delays or another problem. Such issues can be very frustrating! To fully understand why email can be problematic even when it’s working correctly, it helps to have some basic background knowledge on the history and development of email, and how we ended up where we are today. To do this properly, we’re going to start by looking at some of the first mainframe computers from the late 1950’s.

Computation vs. Communication

Early computers had no messaging protocol, because computers were designed for computation not communication. While big mainframe computers had some sort of messaging protocol by the late 1960’s, these computers were not interconnected in any way and nothing was standardized. Then ARPANET came along and started interconnecting universities and research labs.

ARPANET was the US government’s research network, and all users of the network were directly involved in government work. The inventors of email were the researchers who wanted to advance from tasks like leaving messages for each other inside of files to addressing messages to each other just as you would with a paper envelope. As you can see, email was an afterthought. It wasn’t designed as much as it evolved. Let’s look at that evolution a bit more closely.

The First Email

These days we take the @ symbol for granted, but it wasn’t always this way. Until this innovation, it wasn’t possible to email other people who weren’t on the same mainframe as yourself. The first message sent using the @ symbol is widely considered to be the first email ever sent. This occurred at a university in 1971, almost 50 years ago.

Researchers, the very users of email, kept adding functionality to it to make email more useful. The first email programs were built on top of existing tools. The programs could only read, sort, and delete email. Sending email had to be done with a different program. By the late 1970’s, email was stored in a standard format that is almost identical to how email is stored on modern email servers. That’s right; the format we use these days is over 40 years old.

ARPANET: A Trusted Environment

ARPANET was a trusted environment. Everyone using this new mail system was entrusted to use computers costing hundreds of thousands (if not millions) of dollars. Most users of the network knew each other in some way. In fact, if you needed to look up a colleague’s email address, you could refer to a printed list of every email owner and their address. 

Technologically speaking, nothing stopped them from abusing email. Nothing stopped them from impersonating another user or sending a malicious payload with the email. Everyone trusted each other and used email as intended.

This changed on one fateful day in 1978 when an overly zealous Digital Equipment Corporation salesman sent marketing material to every person on the published list of addresses, becoming the first spammer. He never heard the end of it. 

INTERNET: An Untrusted Environment

Eventually, commercial entities like MCI wanted to be part of ARPANET. In the 1980’s, ARPANET became the INTERNET. With all of these new companies and people online, the Internet was full of people that no longer knew each other directly. These early Internet users wanted to communicate with each other just the same, and because of this, email was one of the first “killer” apps!

Email was fundamental in making the Internet what it is today. But email didn’t really become what it is today until the mid 1990’s. By then it was still just text that could be sent over the Internet, and it was still designed to work in a trusted environment. Attachments, forwarders, autoresponders, even password based authentication; these solutions didn’t exist at the beginning. They were all added after the fact. 

As the DEC salesman (the first spammer) so blatantly pointed out, all anyone had to do to send spam successfully was to try. The DEC salesman was not malicious though, just eager to make a sale. But what about people who did have malicious intent? All they had to do to abuse the system was try

As a result, email is abused heavily. Between 60% and 70% of all email sent is spam. Email is used as an attack vector in phishing, malware, scams, ransomware, and more. Technologies like SPF, DKIM, blacklists, and others are just bandaids to a product that is built on a fundamentally broken trust model. 

Email Today

We’d all agree that email has come a long way since that first email in 1971. We’ve come to expect that emails should be received within minutes without any possible interruptions. When communicating with email addresses on the same system (such as sending to and from Gmail) that is a fairly reasonable expectation.

What can complicate matters? The fact each email server isn’t required to work in the same way at all. Some are vastly different. Instead, email servers are only required to speak the same language so that they can communicate with each other. 

How can that affect you personally? At times, email might not work as expected. Mail servers at various companies will arbitrarily block emails coming from an email address, domain, or email server. Such a block can happen without warning, explanation, or even so much as a second chance. Other email hosts may delay an email in an effort to make the sender prove themselves to be a real server. Others may employ spam filters that incorrectly mark email as spam, causing delivery problems. There are dozens of ways that an email can fail to reach its destination promptly. 

The Verdict – Email Hosting

At A2 Hosting, we’ve done our best to provide a solid email hosting solution, but we realize that things don’t always go according to plan. Email is a complex service that is surprisingly difficult to provide! If you are having issues with your own email hosted at A2 Hosting, let us know and we’ll be glad to help you!