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Electronic mail, abbreviated e-mail or email, is a method of composing, sending, and receiving messages over electronic communication systems. The term email applies both to the Internet email system based on the Simple Mail Transfer Protocol (SMTP) and to workgroup collaboration systems allowing users within one company or organization to send messages to each other. Often workgroup collaboration systems natively use non-standard protocols but have some form of gateway to allow them to send and receive internet email. Some organizations may use the internet protocols for internal email service.

Origins of email

Despite common belief, email actually predates the Internet; in fact, existing email systems were a crucial tool in creating the Internet.

Email started in 1965 as a way for multiple users of a time-sharing mainframe computer to communicate. Although the exact history is murky, among the first systems to have such a facility were SDC's Q32 and MIT's CTSS.

Email was quickly extended to become network email, allowing users to pass messages between different computers. The early history of network email is also murky; the AUTODIN system may have been the first allowing electronic text messages to be transferred between users on different computers in 1966, but it is possible the SAGE system had something similar some time before.

The ARPANET computer network made a large contribution to the evolution of email. There is one report which indicates experimental inter-system email transfers on it shortly after its creation, in 1969. Ray Tomlinson initiated the use of the @ sign to separate the names of the user and their machine in 1971. The common report that he "invented" email is an exaggeration, although his early email programs SNDMSG and READMAIL were very important. The first message sent by Ray Tomlinson is not preserved; it was "a message announcing the availability of network email". The ARPANET significantly increased the popularity of email, and it became the killer application of the ARPANET.

Email: Spamming and Email Worms

The usefulness of email is being threatened by three phenomena, spamming, phishing and email worms.

Spamming is unsolicited commercial email. Because of the very low cost of sending email, spammers can send hundreds of millions of email messages each day over an inexpensive Internet connection. Hundreds of active spammers sending this volume of mail results in information overload for many computer users who receive tens or even hundreds of junk emails each day.

Email worms use email as a way of replicating themselves into vulnerable computers. Although the first email worm (the Morris worm) affected early UNIX computers, this problem is today almost entirely confined to the Microsoft Windows operating system.

The combination of spam and worm programs results in users receiving a constant drizzle of junk email, which reduces the usefulness of email as a practical tool.

A number of technology-based initiatives mitigate the impact of spam. In the United States, U.S. Congress has also passed a law, the Can Spam Act of 2003, attempting to regulate such email.

Email: Privacy Issues

Email privacy, without some security precautions, can be compromised because:

  • email messages are generally not encrypted  
  • email messages have to go through intermediate computers before reaching their destination, meaning it is relatively easy for others to intercept and read messages  
  • many Internet Service Providers (ISP) store copies of your email messages on their mail servers before they are delivered. The backups of these can remain up to several months on their server, even if you delete them in your mailbox. 

There are cryptography applications that can serve as a remedy to the above, such as Virtual Private Networks, message encryption using PGP or the GNU Privacy Guard, encrypted communications with the email servers using Transport Layer Security and Secure Sockets Layer, and/or encrypted authentication schemes such as Simple Authentication and Security Layer.

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