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An Historical Analysis of Phishing




The term “phishing” was developed on January 28, 2006, by user @mk590 on an AOL forum; however, its history dates back much further than its official origin. Phishing actually intertwines with spam. Today, spam consumes over half of all electronic mail, but spam transformed into phishing when attackers began including malicious content in emails. Now, dangerous phishing attacks are on an exponential rise by 250%. Let us analyze the ignition of phishing to gain a better grasp of its future.

To begin, it will prove beneficial to understand the origins of email. In 1965, MIT’s Compatible Time-Sharing System was invented to store shared files and messages on a central disk. Each user logged into their Time-Sharing System from a remote terminal. All-in-all, this was the first form of electronic mail.

A few years later in 1971, ARPANET received a facelift. ARPANET was essentially the foundation for the Internet, allowing users to send messages between different computers. Ray Tomlinson introduced the “@” symbol to ARPANET, helping narrow down specific recipients to send messages to. Five years later, Queen Elizabeth II became the first head-of-state to send an electronic message, massively popularizing the resource. 

In 1977, DARPA developed and finalized the first standard email template to be used on ARPANET. This included “To” and “From” fields, as well as features to forward electronic messages. Today, we still use DARPA’s foundations for email templates.

The email was never developed with the intention to be secure; however, there was never anything to warrant email security until the birth of spam in 1978. This was the year Gary Thuerk sent history’s first spam email to 397 ARPANET users. Although this made history, it remained so unpopular that there were no other spam attempts for more than a decade.

Once Gary tested the spam waters, this opened up doors for spamming to becoming a prank in 1988. Players of multi-user dungeons (MUD) gamers began pranking their rivals’ accounts by flooding their inboxes with junk email. This resulted in the crashing of their systems and prevented rivals from playing back. In 1993, “spam” as we know it was officially integrated into language by Richard Depew. Depew referred to junk mail as “spam,” referencing a Monty Python skit of the same name.

The following year, history’s second attempt at mass spam was made when 2 immigration lawyers blasted out a mass message advertising their services. Laurence Canter & Martha Siegel later wrote a book defending the “marketing spam” practice.

After this, the use of spam transformed from simple annoying recurrences to a major security threat. In the 90s, the Warez Community began utilizing random credit card generators to open nameless AOL accounts. Furthermore, the Warez community used hacked accounts to send even more phishing messages to the victim’s contacts.

In 1995, AOL addressed this issue by broadcasting new security measures that stopped the use of these faux credit card numbers; however, Warez had already moved on to a new scam: fake AOL administrator accounts. 

From here, the history of scamming and phishing began to overlap. Although new technology is developed every day, phishing methods seem to still have a head start. As computers and emails are now typically stored on clouds, securing these are the top priority. The infographic below completes the history of phishing, as well as provides tips on protecting your individual information.

Brian Wallace is the Founder and President of NowSourcing, an industry leading infographic design agency , based in Louisville, KY and Cincinnati, OH which works with companies that range from startups to Fortune 500s. Brian also runs #LinkedInLocal events nationwide, hosts the Next Action Podcast, and has been named a Google Small Business Advisor for 2016-present and joined the SXSW Advisory Board in 2019. Follow Brian Wallace on LinkedIn as well as Twitter.