Tech Guide: Many Strategies Against Spam Can't Stem Frustration - InformationWeek

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8/22/2003
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Tech Guide: Many Strategies Against Spam Can't Stem Frustration

This Tech Guide explores the strategies and shortcomings behind anti-spam tools.

Tech GuideIn the war against spam, it's clear who's winning, and it's not the white hats. Despite a plethora of anti-spam software options and numerous anti-spam laws (29 U.S. states have passed laws that regulate spam, in addition to laws in countries in Europe and elsewhere), spam traffic is steadily increasing.

While it might appear that the various measures are having little effect, anecdotal evidence suggests otherwise. What appears to be happening is spamming is getting smarter and more specialized, as spammers use more sophisticated techniques to hide themselves. And hiding is made easier by the fact that the Internet's routing and E-mail infrastructure is based on 20-year-old protocols such as SMTP, DNS, and TCP/IP, protocols that were designed when security wasn't a worry and that have changed little in the past decades.

The result is that spam--unsolicited bulk E-mail--is like a hurricane whose wind speed keeps increasing, straining the resources of IT departments and clogging Internet bandwidth. To say that spam statistics are bleak is putting it mildly. Spam traffic will soon overtake ham (desired E-mail messages) on major backbones, according to most analysts, and there is little consensus in the Internet community on a long-term solution to the problem.

For the foreseeable future, spam will be dealt with largely by Internet service providers, corporate IT departments, end users, and, to a lesser extent, the legal departments of larger businesses and governments. The major backbone providers are not in a position to look at the content of E-mail messages routed over their networks, despite the fact that they carry the bulk of spam around the globe. "It's not technically feasible to monitor the content of traffic going over our network," says Craig Silliman, director of MCI's Technology and Network Law Group, noting the sheer volume of traffic that passes over the MCI and UUNet (an MCI subsidiary) backbones every day.

In the meantime, a substantial anti-spam industry has arisen with more than 20 standalone software products, in addition to numerous add-ons for existing mail and antivirus products. Major groupware providers such as Microsoft and Lotus are just now including more advanced anti-spam features in their soon-to-be-released flagship mail-server products, Exchange Server 2003 and Domino 6, and popular desktop E-mail clients such as Eudora Pro 6 and Outlook 2003 will also soon be shipping with greatly improved anti-spam capabilities.

While there are now many anti-spam products, and a number of different anti-spam techniques that can be utilized, two basic techniques, blacklists and content filtering, have proven to have a reasonable degree of effectiveness against spam. They are used, in one form or another, by almost every anti-spam product. Typically, products will offer both blacklisting and content filtering, a combination that has proven moderately effective.

Blacklists and Whitelists
Several third-party organizations maintain blacklists, sometimes called realtime blackhole lists, or RBLs, or blocklists, which are lists of IP addresses or domain names that are known to be originators of spam. Businesses can decrease the amount of spam they receive by subscribing to blacklists and blocking any E-mail traffic originating from the IP addresses or domain names listed on the blacklists. Blacklists are an example of community anti-spam measures, since they are maintained by the greater community of ISPs, backbone providers, and other interested parties. Most anti-spam products let you choose which third-party blacklists you want to use, and will query the blacklists using a DNS query to the blacklist maintainer's Web site, or by using a locally cached version of the blacklist database. If the header of an E-mail message indicates that the message originated from a site on the blacklist, the E-mail is bounced, discarded, or flagged for further processing.

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