Sunday, January 25, 2004

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Hunting spam

I've written previously that my preference for dealing with annoyances like e-mail spam has been through technological rather than regulatory recourses. It's not that I necessarily think legal options are wrong; they're just not my first choice.

We've been through this regarding phone solicitations, in which the regulatory outcome seemed to win. Intriguingly, the battle for Internet spam might be a case of technological solutions mattering more than regulatory ones.

The New York Times reports that increasingly sophisticated filtering software is eroding the "quality" of spam:

Measured in bits and bytes, the sheer volume of spam may not have diminished. But advanced filtering software, which learns to recognize the mercurial traits of junk e-mail, is having an effect. The spammers' messages are becoming harder and harder to decipher. Sense is inevitably degenerating into nonsense, like a pileup of random mutations in an endangered species gasping its last breaths.

Earlier this month, when Internet experts met in Cambridge, Mass., for the 2004 Spam Conference (available as a Web broadcast at, they showed just how far the science of spam fighting has come. For all the recent talk of suing spammers and compiling a national do-not-spam list, most speakers were putting their hopes in technological, not legal solutions. The federal government's new junk e-mail law, the Can Spam Act, barely rated a mention....

Many experts believe that solving the spam problem will require a combination of [legal and technological] approaches. But laws take forever to pass and amend. Technological fixes like sender authentication and electronic stamps would also take time to carry out, but filtering is already here - and it is reducing the spammers' messages to feeble signals swamped by a roar of alphanumeric noise.

Meanwhile Bill Gates is now weighing in on the issue:

Microsoft chief Bill Gates has vowed to make spam emails obsolete in two years’ time, sources confirmed tonight.

Mr Gates admitted spamming, which usually relates to pornography, pyramid schemes or financial scams, was innovative.

But, he revealed that Microsoft was investigating three solutions to rid in-boxes from the clutter of unsolicited bulk emails....

Filters could be used to sift real mail from spam but would not be the “magic solution” as spammers used random words in subject headers and replaced text with pictures to go undetected.

“Human challenges”, forcing the sender to solve a puzzle or the computer sending the email to do a simple computation, would be easy for a machine sending a few emails, but expensive and difficult when dealing with lots of spam.

posted by Dan on 01.25.04 at 12:16 PM


The spam I've been getting has declined in number since the new year, and some of them are just nonsensical. I got this spam recently:

Re: flannelette

copy minimax supervise


hamadryad openly acrophobia hydroponics
musculature reactionary sirloin pantomime
milk nonpartisan pastel solder
crete danger lo boudoir

Babara Keenum

posted by: Hei Lun Chan on 01.25.04 at 12:16 PM [permalink]

Spammers are reducing to sending more garbage mainly because they can't afford to send messages that a filter can parse.

S(o) t(h)(e) n@xt m@ss@ge y(ou g3t w(ill) look something like this :)

posted by: Suresh on 01.25.04 at 12:16 PM [permalink]

I've had my business email address for over 12 years (not the one on this post.) As partner in a consulting firm, customers from several years ago still send emails for assistance. I am now getting over 380 spam emails a day to my business email address. I filter them into a spam folder, but still have to go through the titles to prevent overlooking a customer email. I find one or two false rejects a week, representing lost business, or at least customers who would have been displeased by a lack of reaponse.

I initially resisted the idea of the US Postal Service getting into the email business, but now I'd be the first to sign up. I don't believe private business can or will provide the level of oversight, control, investigation, and prosecution that we currently receive for mail fraud today through the US Postal Service.

posted by: germ on 01.25.04 at 12:16 PM [permalink]

Part of the reason for this, of course, is that a regulatory solution is feasible for telemarketing but much less so for spam. If anyone thought that legislation could seriously impact spam, I'll bet there would be a lot more support for it.

posted by: Kevin Drum on 01.25.04 at 12:16 PM [permalink]

As you can see from my email address I use Hotmail, and have for several years. The filter I use is provided by the Hotmail service. It simply separates my email into two buckets: items from people I know (in my Contacts list) and items from people I don't know.

This is not my work email address so I only check it a few times (at most) per day. I have to say spam, while annoying and often comical, has never been a huge burden. I do peruse the Junk Mail folder to make sure new contact email is added to my "good" list, but otherwise it is just emptied by Hotmail.

Btw, this is not an advert for Hotmail, just trying to show that for me, the solution to unwanted email is pretty simple and effective - and accomplished without a costly government bureaucracy.

posted by: steve on 01.25.04 at 12:16 PM [permalink]

Mozilla 1.6

The price is right -- $0.00(Zero Dollars)


Mail & Newsgroups

Junk mail controls helps you take back control of your e-mail from spammers. Mozilla's adaptive junk mail control gets smarter with use and is personalized to the e-mail that you receive.

Manage your mail with customizable Labels and Mail Views. Color code your e-mail to help you prioritize. Sort your mail with views to help you through your e-mail much faster.

Mozilla supports Multiple Accounts to help you manage all your mail through one interface.

Mozilla Messenger includes Enterprise ready features such as S/MIME, return receipts, LDAP support, and digital signing.


Tabbed browsing gives you a better way to surf the net. You no longer have to open one page at a time. With tabbed browsing, open several pages at once with one click. And now your homepage can be multiple tabbed pages.

Popup blocker lets you surf the web without intrusion. Advanced popup blocker notifies you when popups are blocked. You can also block pop-ups on a site per site basis.

Image Manager lets you block images to block offensive images or to speed up the rendering of web sites.

Find as you type gives you another way to navigate a page. Just start typing to jump from link to link or to find a word or phrase within a page.

Plus all the features a modern browser should have including: Advanced security settings; Password, Download, and Cookie managers; Themes; multi-language and multi-platform support; and, the latest in Web Standards.

posted by: Robert Schwartz on 01.25.04 at 12:16 PM [permalink]

To Robert Schwartz:

Nice advert. What? No blocking of spam on blogs?

To Steve:

I know what you mean. That's why I'm not using my business address here. (I've already received two spam mails to this address from yesterday's blog comment.) But in general, consultants want potential customers to contact us - we don't know who they are yet, so we can't put them on an acceptable list. We have to go through the spam. I speak at conferences about twice a month, and many of our customers are referrals from people who heard me speak. I need my email address published.

Seems to me it's the low cost of email and the anonymity that enables the abuse that's dragging all of us down. Unsolicited email prohibitions aren't the answer - prevents reasonable businesses from sending their ads while abusers still overload our systems.

The Postal Service is going to have to change anyway - they're in the right place to take on the task.

And it fits in well with where the Patriot Act is heading. Ashcroft can match up my sent and received emails with my book purchases! I'm not a person of interest (yet) so I trust him; don't you?

posted by: germ on 01.25.04 at 12:16 PM [permalink]

See for a rather exhaustive discussion of spam. Personally, I prefer the "charge to get into my inbox" approach. To email me, you have to pay a small fee, say 25 cents. If I read your email and decide that I don't mind corresponding with you, the 25 cents gets refunded. Of course anyone I know would be exempted from the charges.

For libertarians like professor Drezner, the best part is that such a solution would be completely voluntary. You could choose to not charge for your inbox. You could also choose to not pay anyone's inbox fee.

Of course, the only problem with this system is that it doesn't exist. Seems like it's technically feasible though.

posted by: Dustin on 01.25.04 at 12:16 PM [permalink]

I think Bill Gates is missing something.

"Filters could be used to sift real mail from spam but would not be the “magic solution” as spammers used random words in subject headers and replaced text with pictures to go undetected."

I am not sure about what you do to deal with pictures instead of text (except turn off viewing HTML mail!) but I've been using Bayesian antispam filters for months now and random words in subject headers are not really effective unless those words happen to be words that would be in legitimate mail to me. Since that set of words is different for everyone, it's a failing strategy.

posted by: Rick C on 01.25.04 at 12:16 PM [permalink]

My email is filtered by SpamAssassin. I'm sure some good email gets put in the trash, but, I'm not loading and looking through 1000 subject headings. Even so, a lot of spam gets through to my inbox. I use Pine, sorting the inbox by subject. I can look through 100 or 200 messages fairly quickly that way.

As for "human challenges" what would people who run mailing lists (like Microsoft) do?

Even if I got 2000 spams a day, I still wouldn't want MS or the US or the UN inventing some system to get rid of spam. Eventually some, for instance, political messages would be unrightfully declared spam and blocked.

Sending special ops troops in to shut down mail servers in Russia and China would be a better solution. Just kidding about the last.

posted by: Lonewacko on 01.25.04 at 12:16 PM [permalink]

The BBC was ticking me off this weekend, reporting on Gates' proposal and repeatedly referring to him as "Internet pioneer Bill Gates", which couldn't be farther from the truth.

It's even more of a distortion than anything Al Gore was ever alleged to have said.

posted by: Jon H on 01.25.04 at 12:16 PM [permalink]

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