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.

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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.

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