Spam: Not Just for Breakfast Anymore

  • Smaller Small Medium Big Bigger
  • Default Helvetica Segoe Georgia Times

Spam--along with the effort to control and eliminate it--has replaced Internet viruses as the latest "fear and loathing" topic in the media. So virulent is this topic that efforts are being pushed to make the creation and the distribution of spam a criminal offence, with punishment by jail time.

Yet new legislation and new efforts by ISPs will have little effect on the quantity of spam that you receive. And the public uproar is drowning out more realistic approaches to solve the technical issue of unsolicited commercial email.

Recent Anti-Spam Legislation

Senators Conrad Burns (R-Mont.) and Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) have introduced the Can-Spam Act of 2003, making the creation and distribution of spam a criminal act with punishments of fines and imprisonment for the offenders.

Senator Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) is proposing similar legislation that would also establish a national no-spam registry, modeled after do-not-call list legislation enacted this year that enables people to avoid getting calls from telemarketers.

Similar legislation has been proposed in the Colorado and Missouri state legislatures to create a central database of residents who don't want to receive unsolicited email. In the Colorado Junk-E-Mail proposal, the law requires companies to pay an annual fee of up to $500 to access the registry. It also would award consumers $10 plus attorney's fees for each unwanted message they receive, assuming they are willing to take the spammer to court.

These efforts are mostly ill-advised and miss the key technical issue that makes spam so difficult to control: Nobody knows who the spammers are, nobody can trace their physical whereabouts, and most legally defined spam is the calling card of virtual scam artists who are trying to take your money.

The problem with spam is not that it is legal abuse, but that it is illegal abuse of a technically crude and fragile communication network that no one can fix.

Industry Responses by Concerned Benefactors

Last week, in response to these calls for punitive measures, Microsoft, America Online, and Yahoo!--the largest sources of public email accounts--vowed to work together to establish ways to filter spam from their services while establishing industrywide technical standards that would make the promulgation of spam more difficult. These standards--something they called "best practices"--will be designed to help IP administrators better screen communications while closing loopholes in the technology of SMTP message serving.

At the same time, however, many Internet administrators whose clients have complained about spam have launched their own vigilante efforts to blanket black-list entire Internet domains--along with all the IP addresses assigned to those domains--that have been identified as sources of spam. This effort is like a rolling blackout for email users, indiscriminately cutting off channels of messages from anyone within the affected domain areas. It is like carpet bombing neighborhoods of unwitting email users for the infractions of recalcitrant terrorists: It stops the spam momentarily, but it destroys the integrity of the network as a whole.

How Serious Is the Problem?

It has been estimated that spam-related problems are costing the economy upward of $10 billion in lost productivity. This cost is a direct result of time spent by readers of unwanted email and by administrators trying to stop the proliferation.

The problem is, according to the anti-spam company Brightmail, growing at an alarming rate. Brightmail recorded 6.7 million instances of multiple unsolicited messages being sent out in March, a 78% increase from a year ago.

At the same time, an FTC study of 1,000 such emails found that only 10% were backed by real companies offering real products or services. The rest? The FTC said they were scams, directed at stealing money from the users' credit cards.

Email and the Wild West

Yet, despite the public uproar in the media and on Capital Hill, commercial email remains one of the most important mediums for businesses, holding one of the greatest potentials for moving our economy out of its doldrums.

A recent study by META Group (April 22, 2003) showed that 80% of business users prefer communication through email to communication by phone. META's survey was, according to META, conducted with 387 organizations representing a wide range of company sizes and industries worldwide. The research was conducted using a panel consisting of IT and line-of-business personnel as well as corporate executives who make business and/or IT decisions for their organizations. (For more information on the survey findings, visit META Group.)

Business's preference for email underlines the dramatic shift in business communications that is propelling the desire to tame the seemingly lawless Wild West atmosphere of the Internet.

Unwittingly, however, this study is pointing to a divide that is growing between business enterprises and personal users of the Internet: Companies need a secure, commercial environment in which to conduct their business communications and to reach new potential customers. Personal users, however, are bridling at the sheer quantity of messages that they perceive as pure junk, often with lurid subject lines that are ticklers for illegal scams.

Solicited Versus Unsolicited Email

Defining spam thus becomes the issue in and of itself. Although business wants and needs a means of communicating with existing and potential customers, these same customers want to be shielded from unsolicited communications. Defining spam, globally, has become a tricky issue that requires--at one extreme--identifying unscrupulous purveyors of bulk communications, while--at the other extreme--enabling legitimate businesses to continue to communicate and advertise to existing customers. This includes soliciting new customers in a responsible and productive manner.

The existing U.S. Spam Laws provide a means for potential customers to opt-in to legitimate commercial email distributions. (For instance, the email distribution by which this article was distributed to you, as a reader, was initiated when you subscribed to MC Mag Online.) According to these laws, the users of opt-in services must be provided with a simple means within each distribution to remove their names from any opt-in subscription.

These same laws prohibit the sale of email addresses to third parties without the expressed permission of the subscriber. Likewise, statistics and/or personal demographic information about the user cannot be sold to third parties.

All of these requirements must be stated in a privacy notice that is contained in the email distribution itself. (And, by the way, MC Press--the publisher of MC Mag Online--strictly complies with all current applicable U.S. Spam Laws.)

But the real problems associated with the proliferation of spam are the result not of the need for laws but of the email distribution technology itself. How can you prevent abuse by individuals who are clearly acting in an illegal fashion?

Technologies for Secure Email

The current technology employed in email was never designed to handle the issue of unsolicited commercial email. Email sent over the Internet uses relatively benign, transparent, and patently feeble mechanisms to deliver messages, based upon the Simple Mail Transport Protocol (SMTP) and, by in large, Post Office Protocol Version 3 (POP-3) email clients.

SMTP servers will send almost anything fed to them, and email POP-3 browsers will read anything they receive. Neither technology has a means of determining if the person who sent you the message is legitimate. In fact, it's so easy to lie to these protocols that almost anyone can change a setting in their software and pretend to be someone else. That's the reason spammers can get away with so much: They cloak themselves in obscurity.

This raises the issue of email security. Why can't email be secure?

In the past, technologists were focused upon making certain that the content of the communication within the email itself was secure from hackers who might intercept the email package and abuse what information was contained within. These efforts led to the development of email encryption, which is a continuing source of debate between government security agencies and privacy-rights activists.

But that's not the problem with spam. Who cares if the government reads your spam? (As long as they delete it in the process!) The real problem with spam is not traditional content security, but service security: security in who may access the public networks.

At present, anyone with a computer can obtain a free email account from Yahoo!, Microsoft, or (for a small fee) AOL and begin pelting the network. Worse, anyone with a modicum of technical know-how can forge email headers and distribute untraceable messages through email SMTP servers whose administrators are too ignorant or too complacent to close loopholes.

And the technology of email is so crude that filters cannot staunch the flow of spam and laws designed to punish the perpetrators cannot be enforced. Indeed, no-spam registries themselves will merely make it more illegal to get caught sending spam but will do nothing to halt the flow of the worse kinds of spam: the untraceable spam sent by spammers who steal services or who forge email headers.

The only real "fix" to spam is to create a standard technology that uniquely identifies email users through a security scheme and prevents unsecured users from using the system. This would close the loophole that allows unwanted, non-subscribed communications from distribution, while placing the burden of legitimacy upon the sender of the message itself.

Full Circle--Security Certificates

Of course, this kind of digital security--employing a certificate that identifies the user and validates his profile--is a not new technology at all: Lotus Notes messaging has used it for years, as did other messaging systems prior to the explosion of SMTP and POP3 on the Internet. No Notes user can send an email within a Notes domain without a proper Notes certificate identifying them. Likewise, no Notes user can receive an email from within the Notes domain that has not passed a validation routine. Other messaging systems, like the old MS Mail, had similar requirements. But all of that is gone now with global Internet SMTP mail. It's gone because security was the last thing on the minds of technologists who were pushing for Internet email.

Indeed, it was the sudden, unplanned explosion of POP3 and SMTP servers that has created the technical problem of spam, and it is these twin technologies that must now be modified or replaced. And until the Internet community acknowledges that it has outgrown SMTP and POP3--and addresses the issue with a means of securely identifying Internet email users--no law issued by the US Congress and no "best practices" issued by the nation's purveyors of email services will rid us of this endless and costly abuse.

Thomas M. Stockwell is the Editor in Chief of MC Press, LLC. He has written extensively about program development, project management, IT management, and IT consulting and has been a frequent contributor to many midrange periodicals. He has authored numerous white papers for iSeries solutions providers. His most recent consulting assignments have been as a Senior Industry Analyst working with IBM on the iSeries, on the mid-market, and specifically on WebSphere brand positioning. He welcomes your comments about this or other articles and can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..