Academics Enlist in Spam Battle

By Matthew Hicks  |  Posted 2004-07-31 Print this article Print

Whether from cryptography or bioinformatics, from universities or industry, researchers ready new approaches for improving e-mail.

MOUNTAIN VIEW, Calif.—Watch out spammers. Academic researchers are raring for battle. On Friday, the inaugural Conference on E-mail and Anti-Spam opened here at Microsoft Corps campus with a decidedly different approach to fighting unwanted e-mail. Rather than touting products, speakers vetted research from universities and industry laboratories. Their approaches moved far beyond the Bayesian filtering of yesteryear to the use of sequencing techniques from bioinformatics, cryptography and natural language processing to tackle spam.
According to conference organizers, there was pent-up demand for a research-oriented event on spam and e-mail. Organizers received 80 academic papers from 11 countries for the conference, of which 29 were to be presented over two days.
"Theres no [academic] conference with more than one or two spam papers in any given year, and there wasnt a good venue to your show work," said Joshua Goodman, a researcher at Microsoft Research. Read more here about an IBM Research project called SpamGuru that will be making its way into products. The most heated debate came during a panel on the growing numbers of economic-based models for deterring the sending of unwanted bulk e-mail. It explored programs where senders pay for sending spam, whether making a micro payment when a recipient designates an e-mail as spam, as in a program from Vanquish Inc., or putting up a financial bond and being certified, as in the Bonded Sender program from IronPort Systems Inc. Click here to read more about the debate about various economic approaches against spam. Beyond financial approaches, the panel also delved into the use of a computational puzzle approach from Microsoft Research to force a spammers computer systems to use extra CPU or memory resources to send large amounts of e-mail as well as challenge-response questions. All panelists agreed none will end the broad problem of spam alone, but one skeptic pointed out that for each approach spammers could easily find counterattacks. Next Page: Surprising strategies could be employed by spammers. Is e-mail dying? Click here to read an opinion from eWEEK Technology Editor Peter Coffee. Next Page: More highlights. Microsofts MSN division is finding that sex still sells in spam but with less explicitness. Spam for non-graphical sexual products, such as herbal enhancements or Viagra, is gaining in popularity among its MSN Hotmail users who volunteer to analyze e-mail messages, said Geoff Hulten, a researcher in MSNs Anti-Spam Technology and Strategy Group. The non-graphical sexual products accounted for 34 percent of spam this year, double a year ago, while sexually explicit spam messages have fallen to 7 percent hits year from 13 percent, he said. Meanwhile, the number of exploits used in spam messages is increasing, or as Hulten put it, "Spammers are actually working hard." The average number of exploits—such as obscuring words in a message or spoofing a domain—climbed to 1.73 per message this year from 1.33 in 2003, Hulten said.
  • In his surveys in the use of e-mail accounts, Ben Gross, of the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbanas Graduate School of Library and Information Sciences, found that 50 percent of people were using more than one account—some as many as a couple dozen. Their reasons included wanting to separate work from personal e-mail or to keep online shopping and spam relegated to specific accounts, Gross said. But technological and application design barriers remain for users wanting to manage and organize messages in a single e-mail client. He challenged vendors to do better. "The current state is poor for managing multiple identities, and it would be a great boon for users if this were improved and the tools were improved," Gross said. Check out eWEEK.coms Messaging & Collaboration Center at for more on IM and other collaboration technologies.

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    Matthew Hicks As an online reporter for, Matt Hicks covers the fast-changing developments in Internet technologies. His coverage includes the growing field of Web conferencing software and services. With eight years as a business and technology journalist, Matt has gained insight into the market strategies of IT vendors as well as the needs of enterprise IT managers. He joined Ziff Davis in 1999 as a staff writer for the former Strategies section of eWEEK, where he wrote in-depth features about corporate strategies for e-business and enterprise software. In 2002, he moved to the News department at the magazine as a senior writer specializing in coverage of database software and enterprise networking. Later that year Matt started a yearlong fellowship in Washington, DC, after being awarded an American Political Science Association Congressional Fellowship for Journalist. As a fellow, he spent nine months working on policy issues, including technology policy, in for a Member of the U.S. House of Representatives. He rejoined Ziff Davis in August 2003 as a reporter dedicated to online coverage for Along with Web conferencing, he follows search engines, Web browsers, speech technology and the Internet domain-naming system.

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