Academics Enlist in Spam Battle

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.

/zimages/6/28571.gifRead 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.

/zimages/6/28571.gifClick 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.

While spammers might be able to break new cost-based approaches, many are working today to stem the tide of unwanted e-mail in inboxes, said Brian Wilson, CTO of anti-spam vendor MailFrontier Inc. But he said he was not wedded to any one approach.

"Were just practical," Wilson said. "We just want the problem to go away."

While spam dominated discussions at the conference, researchers also were tackling other e-mail issues.—from harvesting social-networking information from messages to managing multiple e-mail addresses.

/zimages/6/28571.gifIs e-mail dying? Click here to read an opinion from eWEEK Technology Editor Peter Coffee.

Next Page: More highlights.

He suggested that Fortune 500 corporations need to rethink their approaches to sending out e-mail to customers.

  • 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.

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