TCS Daily

Friends and Family

By Matthew Briney - May 21, 2003 12:00 AM

Spam has become a household name and even Hormel Foods will admit it's not their doing. The problem of spam is just about as old as the internet itself, which this month turned 25.

It has become a problem to anyone with an email address. The online research company comScore Media Metrix based in Reston, Virginia reports that the average person receives approximately 925 spam messages a year and predicts that this number will double by 2008.

Recently the debate over what to do with spam has re-ignited with an industry-wide announcement by AOL, MSN and Yahoo that the leading ISPs will partner together to integrate anti-spam systems into their internet services. AOL, the world's largest ISP, received additional help from Virginia Governor Mark Warner with the passage of a new law making spam a felony.

There have been many attempts to stop the spread of spam. Some good, most bad, many outdated. Early anti-spam deterrents were very basic. Individuals and ISPs could block a specific email address or create filters to weed out messages with certain words in the subject or body. These early methods worked well since many people did not rely on email and many spammers would send all messages from the same email account or make their messages identical in nature.

Unlike the dinosaurs, spammers evolved. They changed their tactics and began to send messages from unique email addresses, created different subject headers and masked their email addresses. Today there's an entire community and industry trying to fight spam and with it numerous ways to fight the problem. Here is a look at some of the most common ways:

Most email programs have filters that make sorting email easier. Some people, including state legislators, believe that this is a practical method for fighting spam. Spammers have found ways around this by making the subject headers off-topic or by including a garbled text string in the email subject field (i.e., "How is your money? Fksdf")

Block Email Addresses
This system worked in the early days of fighting spam, until spammers started to build their own servers or exploit open mail relays that allow them to make the message appear like it came from a different email address.

One of the first major organized movements to block spam, blacklists were created to prevent servers from receiving mail from servers that are known to send out spam. These systems are still in use today and hundreds of lists are compiled by a variety of organizations. The largest is a U.K. group called Spamhaus. These groups actively search out open mail relay systems and add them to their lists. Often legitimate organizations have been added to these lists either accidentally, or sometimes purposely, by anti-spam activists. Because of these practices, legitimate organizations often cannot send messages to others because these groups have blocked their systems. Furthermore, since there is no coordinated effort or central list, it is nearly impossible to be sure your organization is removed from a blacklist.

The Law
There have been numerous attempts to pass legislation to stop spam. The most famous of these was S. 1618 Title III, introduced by Senators Frank Murkowski and Bob Torricelli. It laid out many basic etiquette rules that are still followed by respectable email lists today. The bill never passed, but numerous other attempts have been made by state legislatures to stop spam. These cause many problems for internet distribution lists mainly because email addresses are not state-specific. Additionally, there are jurisdiction issues. For instance, if you are a spammer and live in Nevada and spam someone who lives in Connecticut but uses AOL which is based in Virginia, which state has the right to prosecute you?

Email Postage Stamp
One of the most recent movements started is charging for email. Some feel that senders should pay to send you email. Others feel that you should be able to charge back to the sender if they send you mail you do not approve of. If you want to destroy email, this is the way. One of the greatest advantages of email is that it's cheaper than the postal system. The reduction in costs of business through email has contributed to economic growth. To take away those benefits would hurt small businesses, large businesses, government offices, and even individuals. The bureaucratic system that would have to be established to handle the charges and disputes makes this solution prohibitively costly and intrusive.

Authentication Systems
Another new advancement in fighting spam spreading like a brush fire is authenticated emails. The concept works in this way: you set up a list of individuals you want to receive email from. Anyone else who sends you email must be authenticated by clicking a link or replying to the message. This system is annoying, and it doesn't work very well for email lists. Additionally, it could never become practical for government officials, corporations or even news organizations that receive email from all over. Additionally there is nothing to stop spammers from sending mail through a "fake" email address that might be on your list of approved addresses.

Bayesian Filters / P2P
One of the best new ways to stop spam is through combining two innovative technologies: Bayesian filters, which look for similar type strings, and Peer2Peer networks which link computers to each other without the use of a central server. One company, Cloudmark, has created a product that combines these two functions. SpamNet scans all incoming email messages, compares them to a database of known spam, and sorts all unwanted messages into a special folder. Users can identify new spam and determine whether to block or unblock it. The spam and their responses are then sent out to a server where it is index and analyzed for using Bayesian technology.

The system is one of the best responses to the ever-growing problem. All of the messages are still delivered. The filter is adaptive to the evolution of spam and makes spammers ineffective, which in the end is the ultimate way to end the problem of spam.

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