Dealing with spam

COMMENTARY--There are solutions that will work with smaller working environments, but what about the big end of town? I received some interesting e-mails after my column last month "War against bots".



COMMENTARY--There are solutions that will work with smaller working environments, but what about the big end of town?

I received some interesting e-mails after my column last month "War against bots". One of the e-mails was from a programmer who creates his own harvesting bots, but these bots are not working for the "dark side" rather they harvest information from newspaper articles. An electronic PA, if you like, who simply looks for specific information.

After reading the Australian Spam Bill, the programmer was concerned that he could potentially be arrested for creating his bots. However the bill is a bit more specific in that it clearly talks about "address harvesting software", so one would hope that data harvesting software would not invite the wrath of the law. Admittedly there is very little difference in the two types of software but given the value of a data harvesting bot the distinction must be made.

On the topic of spam bills, the US Congress passed their Anti-Spam Bill on December 8. It's an interesting bill in that it does not ban unsolicited e-mail as long as it conforms to a simple code of practice. It does, however, ban the use of false return addresses. And, the consequences of running up against the bill are not insignificant with jail terms and multi-million dollar fines prescribed.

One item I particularly like is that the bill authorises the US Federal Trade Commission to set up a "Do Not Spam" registry for any Internet users who do not wish to receive unsolicited e-mail. The FTC already has a registry for those who do not wish to receive those annoying telemarketing calls and, of course, if a spammer runs foul of the registry the repercussions will be quite dire.

It is also interesting to note that in the land of litigation the bill prohibits the consumers from suing the spammer directly but does have a provision for the ISP to sue for damages.

Suggestions for improving RMIT's fight against spam have been made. One in particular was to check incoming mail against a "white list" of specific e-mail addresses, and a "black list" of specific e-mail addresses. If the sender does not appear in either an e-mail is sent back to the sender stating they are not on our white list, could they please send back the same e-mail but with a small text code embedded in the subject line. Legitimate senders would reply with the code and become a permanent fixture in your white list so the exercise need not be repeated again.

Now while this may seem a pretty good idea for personal or perhaps SOHO usage where "legitimate unknown" senders are relatively few and far between. I would however question its usefulness for a large enterprise scenario like RMIT where we receive an astonishing amount of legitimate mail from unknown senders every day. A centralised white/black list repository would be quite enormous.

Future tech
Here's another little gem I discovered: "dialectic elastomers"--the technology itself is not that new but some of the uses are quite clever. It's a plastic that can expand or contract by up to 400 percent when an electric current is supplied to it. A simple application is to sandwich a thin layer of the elastomer between layers of a flexible graphite medium; in essence you have a flexible capacitor. Imagine a flat sheet of the material: when a current is supplied to the top and bottom of the sheet it stretches out horizontally. There are endless uses for such a material--perhaps one of the more obvious is as artificial "muscles" for either medical or robotic applications where the sheet is rolled into a tubular muscle.

One slightly less obvious use of the material is to reverse the application, mechanically stretching the material generates an electric current so some bright spark, no pun intended, came up with the idea of installing the material in the heel of shoes so as you walk the impact deforms the material and generates power. This application is transparent to the wearer of the shoes so the act of walking or running is no more difficult but will be able to generate enough electrical power to say charge their mobile phone or PDA batteries.

Steve Turvey is Lab Manager of the RMIT IT Test Labs, and can be reached at stevet@rmit.edu.au.

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