More on challenge

By Larry Seltzer  |  Posted 2003-05-08 Print this article Print

-response..."> Challenge-response also got a lot of publicity last year when Walt Mossberg of the Wall Street Journal gushed all over ChoiceMail from DigiPortal Software. I do have to sympathize with Mossberg; I get a lot of email and a lot of spam, but he must really get pounded and he needs to do something about it.

But, typical of challenge-response (also known as "permission-based") mail advocates, he overstates the benefits and ignores the major problem. The biggest problem is that automated emails will not get through unless you manually add them to the whitelist. This alone will be confusing for a lot of users, if not for Mossberg or myself. But if you miss one and it sends you mail you wont know that it didnt get through. The permission form sent to the sender will be ignored so the user, as per design, wont know that an email was ever sent. Im also reasonably sure that some users will look at the permission form and either not know what to make of it (no matter how well its written) or suspect that its some sort of scam.

I dont want to excuse people behaving irrationally, but people do get irrational about their email. The end result of these problems is that you wont get some of the email for you that you wanted to receive, but you wont know it got stopped dead by your filtering software. True, with most products you can check the "pending" folder, or whatever the vendor calls it, but right there you lose the value of the product. If you have to check your spam for real mail, you may as well check it in the inbox.

When we tested Matador we ended up wishing it let us sign off on all the challenges, because a couple users sent confused and/or annoyed responses to them. Ironically, of course, having to check every message is the problems you want to solve with spam-blocking software, so thats no solution at all.

And theres one problem that challenge response, and whitelisting in general, has: Ive received a lot of spam where the from: address was the same as the to: address, in other words my own address. Surely one has to whitelist oneself so that one can cc: oneself, and for other special cases (like emailing this story to yourself from the web page). In this case, ChoiceMail special-cases your own address, allowing mail from your own address if it was sent through the same server. This works great if youre ccing yourself, but not necessarily if youre sending an article to yourself or logging in through your ISPs web-based mail system.

Ive had users of almost every spam-blocking product email me to say how it works great for them, asking how could I have had all these problems. Im definitely not a typical user, but I am adamant that I get all the legitimate mail intended for me.

Larry Seltzer has been writing software for and English about computers ever since—,much to his own amazement—,he graduated from the University of Pennsylvania in 1983.

He was one of the authors of NPL and NPL-R, fourth-generation languages for microcomputers by the now-defunct DeskTop Software Corporation. (Larry is sad to find absolutely no hits on any of these +products on Google.) His work at Desktop Software included programming the UCSD p-System, a virtual machine-based operating system with portable binaries that pre-dated Java by more than 10 years.

For several years, he wrote corporate software for Mathematica Policy Research (they're still in business!) and Chase Econometrics (not so lucky) before being forcibly thrown into the consulting market. He bummed around the Philadelphia consulting and contract-programming scenes for a year or two before taking a job at NSTL (National Software Testing Labs) developing product tests and managing contract testing for the computer industry, governments and publication.

In 1991 Larry moved to Massachusetts to become Technical Director of PC Week Labs (now eWeek Labs). He moved within Ziff Davis to New York in 1994 to run testing at Windows Sources. In 1995, he became Technical Director for Internet product testing at PC Magazine and stayed there till 1998.

Since then, he has been writing for numerous other publications, including Fortune Small Business, Windows 2000 Magazine (now Windows and .NET Magazine), ZDNet and Sam Whitmore's Media Survey.

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