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Post #3 on Why Spam Filters Suck “trickle blog” series

By Desmond Liao | 2 minute read

Once Promising Proposals for a Final Ultimate Solution to the Spam Problem (FUSSP)

“Two years from now, spam will be solved.”

That was Bill Gates’ famous pronouncement back in 2004. Microsoft, Yahoo and the open source community devised two techniques that they believed would eradicate spam. The first was sender authentication, which allowed email senders to provide a list of the servers permitted to send email for users within their domain. The idea was that sender authentication would eliminate spammers spoofing legitimate email addresses, and allow for the creation of a permanent, ironclad white list of trustworthy domains that never send spam, thus allowing recipients to simply block everything not on the white list and end spam forever.

Another idea pitched in 2004 was the computational challenge. Senders would, upon connecting to a receiving email server, have to spend considerable CPU cycles computing the answer to a mathematical challenge provided by the receiving server. Bill Gates believed this approach would stop spam by making it cost too much to send the high volumes of email required to make spamming profitable.

Unfortunately, neither sender authentication nor the computational challenge technique resolved the spam problem. Computational challenges were rejected as being too costly for legitimate bulk email senders (airlines, banks, open source mailing lists, etc.) And sender authentication while eventually enjoying wide-spread adoption in the form of DKIM and SenderID, proved prone to errors. As as result it has remained useful mostly for the acceptance of legitimate email and phishing protection rather than the rejection of spam.

By 2005, what the anti-spam community was getting right was content filtering. When spam filters had reached above the 90 per cent accuracy level, spam transitioned from a problem of content to a problem of volume, the spammers simply send more spam. And they can do this because the recipient pays the cost of content filtering rather than the spammer.

The cost of a resource-consuming filtering system increases during high traffic loads. If you block spam content, spammers will find new ways to get around it. Bill Gates was right, the only way to stop them is to create difficulty by making spam too costly to send. If you do spammers are left to find new targets that are easier to hit.

NEXT: Post #4 Spamonomics: The Economics of Spamming

PREVIOUS: Post #2 Prohibition Induces “Botlegging”

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