E-mail inbox trauma: New tools fail to combat unwanted spam

Posted: Thursday, January 29, 2004

NEW YORK Software makers have spent millions of dollars developing new tools for battling spam, and a federal anti-spam law went into effect Jan. 1.

So are our e-mail inboxes any less cluttered? In the week since the law took effect, spam-filtering company Brightmail Inc. flagged 58 percent of incoming e-mail as spam, showing no change from December. And America Online Inc. saw a 10 percent jump in spam from overseas, possibly from spammers trying to evade U.S. law.

Some experts even believe the new law will actually bury us in even more electronic junk.

''Now we have a green light for what would come to be called 'legal spam,''' said Vincent Schiavone, chief executive of the ePrivacy Group consultancy. By establishing official guidelines for what's permissible, ''the federal law made unsolicited mail legal but no less unwanted.''

Advances in filtering technology aren't eliminating spam, either, as spammers quickly develop smarter countermeasures such as constantly changing the wording in their messages.

As well, spammers have used computer viruses to create additional e-mail relay points even as Internet service companies shut down previously poisoned pathways. Leslie Flynn, an administrative assistant for an investment banker, continues to get ads for Xanax, Valium and ''things to make parts of your bodies bigger.''

The new law doesn't actually ban pitches as long as senders meet various guidelines such as including an accurate subject line and the sender's real-world mail address. Recipients also must be offered a way to decline, or opt out of, future e-mailings.

The law's backers figure spammers aren't inclined to be so cooperative or forthright, but neither will they want to face up to five years imprisonment.

''A spammer will see that and say, 'Yikes, I'm going to move to another line of business,'' said Trevor Hughes of the Email Service Provider Coalition.

But notably, many marketers support the law, particularly its nullification of some conflicting state statutes and, in California's case, tougher measures that would have required a recipient's permission before sending commercial e-mail.

''Everyone was planning for this California law, which was so draconian,'' said Ira Rothken, a San Rafael, Calif., lawyer who has defended companies accused of spamming. ''Once the federal government passed the federal law, everyone was kind of relieved.''

He said many marketers who had, because of the California law, planned on scaling back on e-mailings sent on their behalf by freelancers were no longer curtailing the mailing.

''Basically it's a bill of rights for companies that want to send junk e-mail,'' said John Levine, a board member of the Coalition Against Unsolicited Commercial E-Mail.

Several marketers insist they'll adhere to stronger guidelines and only ship missives to people who have requested mailings.

''From a marketer's perspective, you have to think of the long term,'' said Michael Sippey of Quris Inc., which handles e-mail for Charles Schwab Corp., Blockbuster Inc. and others. He said marketers won't want to forever lose potential customers who get annoyed and opt out.

Nonetheless, Sippey agreed that the law won't stop spammers from simply moving offshore or further trying to hide their tracks even if doing so is now illegal.

Some critics of the law point to technology as the solution, though techniques developed so far have failed.

Jonathan Spira, whose Basex Inc. analysis firm declared spam the ''Product of the Year'' for 2003, said spammers have an edge because they merely have to outsmart machines. By contrast, those building the machines have to not only outsmart spammers, they also must avoid blocking legitimate mail.

''We don't have the solution yet. We have the big Band-Aids,'' said Spira.

Levine heads a new working group to explore fundamental changes in the e-mail architecture and plans to begin tests as soon as February. Researchers at Microsoft Corp. and elsewhere are studying whether to require small payments to send e-mail, costs that would be prohibitive for spammers who send millions of messages.

IronPort Systems Inc., Yahoo Inc. and the Email Service Provider Coalition have explored ways to authenticate trusted senders so that newsletters and other legitimate mailings get through, allowing more aggressive filtering to spurn the unwanted.

Cloudmark Inc., meanwhile, has created a network of individuals who collectively identify spam and legitimate mailings, improving filtering accuracy, while Privacy Inc. will soon offer a variation on disposable e-mail addresses aliases you can control to, say, restrict Amazon.com mailings to one a month.

But ultimately, the solution may involve neither law nor technology.

Mary Youngblood, abuse team manager at EarthLink Inc., said people need to be more savvy in using e-mail.

Among her tips: Put numbers in the middle of e-mail addresses to make them harder to guess, and use a separate address for online shopping and newsgroup postings.



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