Stopping Spam

By Larry Seltzer  |  Posted 2004-04-20 Print this article Print

SMTP authentication can corral spam, but implementation is thorny.

If you look carefully at messages containing spam and e-mail worms, you see some things that arent right. In almost every case, the addressing information that accompanies any such e-mail message is fraudulent. (For more information see "Heading Off Spam".) This is an important characteristic of these messages—and a big part of what allows them to spread so far and be so resistant to defensive measures. A solution is on the way, but it wont come easily.

The solution is SMTP authentication. The idea is that when one mail server receives a message from another, there should be some mechanism for confirming the senders identity. That wouldnt put an absolute end to spam and e-mail worms, but it would put considerable hurdles in their path. It would make effective blacklisting practical, and it would stop the existing, endemic population of worms from spreading.

Why hasnt this happened already? There are a number of proposals in various stages of development, but progress in so fundamental an area takes time. More important, perhaps, is that implementing SMTP authentication would almost certainly require every e-mail server on the Internet to be upgraded and thus would cause considerable disruption and expense—even if the implementation is free of intellectual-property entanglements and direct cost.

Many mail servers out there havent been upgraded in years. It may be impossible to change some, such as those in appliances, and those will need to be replaced. SMTP authentication requires nothing of the end user, though, which is one of the factors that make it so appealing.

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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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