E-mail has taken a battering over the last year or so with mountains of spam and viruses delivered to our mailboxes daily. Can the problem be fixed, and can e-mail still be free?
You walk in to the office with one more reason to hate Monday: spam. You can sort of deal with it during the week, but Mondays? The spammers have spent the entire weekend filling your inbox with junk that you'll have to sort.
If you haven't seen any spam in your lifetime then you've probably never held an e-mail account. Some anti-spam vendors, who admittedly have a vested interest in overstating the problem, estimate that spam now accounts for more than 50 percent of the world's e-mail. Even if the figure is half that, the problem is still a big one.
Some of those companies claim to offer the solution to all your spam woes, but the silver bullet needed to slay the hairy beast seems, at this stage, elusive. There's filtering, white- and blacklisting, trust-based models and extensions to the Simple Mail Transfer Protocol, SMTP.
The original idea of e-mail was to be able to send anyone on the planet an e-mail and have them receive it and read it. That original idea now seems to be an outmoded, misty-eyed romantic notion -- that the Internet could exist without miscreants seeking to abuse its open nature.
So can e-mail survive in the world of v1agr4 p1ll5, 5p3ci4l pr0n XXX 0ff3r5, and bogus l.0t3rry win5?
One true believer in filtering solutions is SpamÃƒ,Ã‚ÂAssassin creator Justin Mason. Back in 2001 Mason was mildly frustrated by spam and set out to create a simple piece of software that could deal with the problem. That software later became SpamAssassin, the open-source spam filter.
"When I started it, spam wasn't half as bad as it was now," he says.
SpamAssassin filters messages at the gateway based on a series of criteria ranging from the source IP of the message to its structure or even basic keywords.
"We mostly rely on pattern-based signatures and the structure of the message," Mason says. "Abuse of open proxies and that sort of thing, we can have signatures for that too."
Does spam represent a threat to e-mail? No, says Mason.
He's not just the creator of SpamAssassin, he's its biggest fan, too: filtering technology will save the day, he says. As anti-spam measures mature, he predicts they will become much easier to use. Automatic "signature" downloads will become common, much the same as anti-virus solutions today.
His company, DeerSoft, was acquired by Network Associates (recently renamed McAfee) at the end of 2002. While SpamAssassin was an open-source project, DeerSoft specialised in creating proprietary extensions to the software to make it easier to manage. Network Associates snapped up the company, Mason and his fellow engineers along with it.
He says the vendors are actually coming up with products that are useful, but concedes you can only go so far. "There are limitations as to how accurate you can get," he admits.
Perhaps of most concern is the number messages tagged as spam that are in fact legitimate. The current rates of what is cutely referred to as "collateral damage" or "false positives" are running at around 0.5 percent in the present generation of Network Associates products, Mason claims.
That's one in 200 messages, which may be too high for some people to accept. Say you don't get the e-mail from your sister in London: big deal, you can live without it. If it's from someone trying to establish contact with your company, then you may have lost yourself some valuable business.