Home CommentaryStudent Life Lovely spam, wonderful spam…give it a rest

Lovely spam, wonderful spam…give it a rest

by Archives October 8, 2003

Picture this? In a Monty Python Flying Circus skit, a group of Vikings are sitting in a restaurant singing “U.C.E., U.C.E., U.C.E., lovely U.C.E., wonderful U.C.E., until told to shut up by the very agitated waitress.

Actually, the restaurant skit serves all its food with lots of spam, and the waitress repeats the word several times in describing how much spam is in the items. When she does this, a group of Vikings in the corner start singing, over and over, increasing the tempo, louder and louder, and more Vikings join in, “Spam, spam, spam, spam, spam, lovely spam, wonderful spam,” until she tells them to put a lid on it.

What we know as Spam is actually Unsolicited Commercial e-mail, or U.C.E and for the straight talkers it is simply junk mail. Period! It is what clogs and corrupts every corner of our e-mail accounts and bounces back important e-mails. It is an attempt to deliver commercial advertising to someone who would not otherwise want it, think about, care about it and never mind actually buy from it.

Spammers do want you to buy. In 2001, 27 per cent of all mail sent in North America was spam; up 39 per cent from the year before. We do have something to be thankful for, because not all spam gets through. According to Message Labs, a provider of managed e-mail security services the incidence of spam is continuously on the rise. The number of spam e-mails intercepted by Message Labs is now more than 80 million per month – up from 30 million in 2002.

Even with Message Labs on the job, you can expect more offers to refinance without perfect credit, or Re: Your Student Loans, and in case you did not know it, Re: Your Internet connection may be malfunctioning (paranoia sells) and Re: girls. In case we are all dunce heads we may be shocked to discover that Re: Your Life Insurance company does NOT WANT you to know that you are being ripped off. Generic Viagra. Naked teens. Tummy tuckers…Oh shut up already.

A spam attack even interrupted delivery of e-mail to millions of Hotmail users last year, as the company fought off a deluge of marketing messages destined for customers. Yahoo! had to spend three days re-tooling their system after they were hit. Hard to feel too sorry for them, since they have previously done business with spammers, but Hotmail’s and Yahoo!’s woes is just an example of what we get in our Inbox on a daily basis.

Anne Bennett, senior system administrator at Concordia, says since the university supplies mail servers to students, departments and faculty members, the central Information Technology department is aggressive when it comes to spammers. “Mail comes into the university from the outside through a small number of mail relay hosts which perform basic anti-spam procedures,” she says.

What about not giving out your e-maill address? Think again? According to Steve Linford, of the anti-spam Spamhaus Project, not supplying your e-mail address to anyone may not be enough to protect yourself from spam. Spamhaus has proof that at least one spammer has been conducting a massive dictionary attack against none other than Hotmail, at the rate of three to four tries per second, 24 hours a day, continuously for the last five months. The spammers will eventually get a list of all subscribers to those accounts.

“Hotmail should protect its servers against these sorts of spam attacks,” says Steve Atkins of the anti-spam website Sam Spade. “But that would require a serious cash investment to design, build and deploy such protection for an e-mail system the size of Hotmail,” he says.

Atkins questions how much business incentive there is for Hotmail to do this. Since they are taking care of a lot of those spam messages through their own spam filtering process, users of Hotmail don’t see a large fraction of the spam they could receive. “But that spam is still delivered to the user bulk-mail folder, so it counts toward their mailbox quota,” Atkins says.

Hotmail offers 2 MB of storage space for their users free of charge and since the spam is still delivered and counted toward that limit, the user account can easily fill up. Even if you ask to be removed from a list it is just a way to confirm that your address is valid. Don’t post your address on your website since software is readily available to lift addresses from many sites. There is not much to be done.

Bennett agrees. “Although much can be done to reduce the amount of spam that reaches our users, it is not possible to design software that is 100 per cent accurate in detecting spam, primarily because different people have different opinions as to what E-mail is wanted and unwanted,” she says.

If you want to help out testing additional anti-spam measures at Concordia go to http://clyde.concordia.ca/email/spam/

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