How spam will kill e-mail.

Inside the Internet.
Nov. 18 2002 10:35 AM

Death by Spam

The e-mail you know and love is about to vanish.

Illustration by Mark Alan Stamaty

One-third of the 30 billion e-mails sent worldwide each day are spam. That's 10 billion daily pitches for herbal Viagra, Nigerian scams, and genital-enlarging creams piling up in our inboxes. Neither legislation nor litigation against spammers has stemmed the tide, and they're not going to have much of an effect in the future, either. It's time to give up: Despite the best efforts of legislators, lawyers, and computer programmers, spam has won. Spam is killing e-mail.

Or at least it's about to destroy the e-mail we're used to: the tool that lets a stranger respond to something you posted on your Web site or that lets a potential client contact you after reading an article you wrote. E-mail is pervasive because it's simple to use, remarkably flexible, and it reaches everyone. The trouble is that e-mail is toogood at that third task. Because e-mail inboxes are open to anyone, longtime Internet users now receive hundreds of spams per day, making e-mail virtually unusable without countermeasures.

Advertisement

The most common countermeasure, server-side filtering, has serious limitations. No automated system can identify spam as well as a human can. Internet service providers certainly try: They block known spammer addresses and use algorithms to identify spam based on an e-mail's contents, subject line, or other headers.  AOL and MSN both trumpet spam filtering systems like this in their latest software, and Yahoo! and Microsoft's Hotmail offer junk-mail filters for their Web-based e-mail services. But the filters are running out of gas. The spammers keep multiplying, and they keep finding clever ways to fool the systems designed to stop them. Promising newcomers such as CloudMark, which taps the collective power of e-mail recipients to identify spam, may improve things for a while. But there will always be a trade-off between catching all the spam and ensuring that every piece of legitimate e-mail gets through.

So, sophisticated Internet users are turning to a new approach. Instead of trying to block spam while allowing everything else, these users employ software that blocks everything except messages from already known, accepted senders. These systems, called "whitelists," change e-mail from an open system to a closed one.

Whitelist applications available today include MailFrontier, ChoiceMail from DigiPortal, Vanquish, and the freeware Tagged Message Delivery Agent. There's also a whitelist option built into Hotmail, known as the "exclusive" setting. Though it's hidden in the preferences menu (click "Options," then "Junk Mail Filter"), more than 10 percent of Hotmail users reportedly invoke it. Before long, expect all e-mail applications to offer this function.

Whitelists typically allow e-mail from everyone in a user's existing address book. Other, unknown senders receive an automated reply, asking them to take further action, such as explain who they are. Or senders may be asked to identify a partially obscured image of a word. A person can make out the word, but automated spammer software can't. 

Whitelists are rare today, but they will become more common.  The relentless growth of spam guarantees it. A filter that catches 80 percent of spam sounds great, and it is great if you get 10 spams a day. But when you get 500 a day, that same filter leaves you sorting through 100 opportunities to Make Money Fast!!!!! 

Like it or not, the only way to kill spam is for an element of e-mail to die as well.  There's always been something charming and casual about e-mail. The informality comes through in the style people use to write messages, but also in where they send them. You've probably sent an e-mail to someone you'd never call on the phone, approach in person, or even write a letter to. Losing this aspect of e-mail is a shame, but it's inevitable. E-mail will become more like instant messaging, with its defined "buddy lists." 

E-mail's openness is doomed when faced with massive traffic and a few bad actors. The next time you try to reach out and touch someone electronically, you may need to know who that person is. Otherwise, you might be reaching out to no one.

Kevin Werbach is an independent technology analyst and organizer of the Supernova conference.

TODAY IN SLATE

Politics

Smash and Grab

Will competitive Senate contests in Kansas and South Dakota lead to more late-breaking races in future elections?

Stop Panicking. America Is Now in Very Good Shape to Respond to the Ebola Crisis.

The 2014 Kansas City Royals Show the Value of Building a Mediocre Baseball Team

The GOP Won’t Win Any Black Votes With Its New “Willie Horton” Ad

Sleater-Kinney Was Once America’s Best Rock Band

Can it be again?

Technocracy

Forget Oculus Rift

This $25 cardboard box turns your phone into an incredibly fun virtual reality experience.

One of Putin’s Favorite Oligarchs Wants to Start an Orthodox Christian Fox News

These Companies in Japan Are More Than 1,000 Years Old

Trending News Channel
Oct. 20 2014 6:17 PM Watch Flashes of Lightning Created in a Lab  
  News & Politics
Politics
Oct. 20 2014 8:14 PM You Should Be Optimistic About Ebola Don’t panic. Here are all the signs that the U.S. is containing the disease.
  Business
Moneybox
Oct. 20 2014 7:23 PM Chipotle’s Magical Burrito Empire Keeps Growing, Might Be Slowing
  Life
Dear Prudence
Oct. 21 2014 9:18 AM Oh, Boy Prudie counsels a letter writer whose sister dresses her 4-year-old son in pink tutus.
  Double X
The XX Factor
Oct. 20 2014 6:17 PM I Am 25. I Don't Work at Facebook. My Doctors Want Me to Freeze My Eggs.
  Slate Plus
Tv Club
Oct. 20 2014 7:15 AM The Slate Doctor Who Podcast: Episode 9 A spoiler-filled discussion of "Flatline."
  Arts
Brow Beat
Oct. 21 2014 9:25 AM The Brilliant Fake Novels of Listen Up Philip
  Technology
Future Tense
Oct. 21 2014 9:39 AM The International-Student Revolving Door Foreign students shouldn’t have to prove they’ll go home after graduating to get a visa.
  Health & Science
Bad Astronomy
Oct. 21 2014 7:00 AM Watch the Moon Eat the Sun: The Partial Solar Eclipse on Thursday, Oct. 23
  Sports
Sports Nut
Oct. 20 2014 5:09 PM Keepaway, on Three. Ready—Break! On his record-breaking touchdown pass, Peyton Manning couldn’t even leave the celebration to chance.