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Spam from Asia, Chapter 1 – Spam from Hong Kong

By Ken Simpson | 3 minute read

In March, I had the pleasure of visiting the great cities of Hong Kong, Manila and Singapore. Since I am on a mission to end the global spam problem by helping ISPs plug up botnet spam through transparent SMTP filtering, and seeing as the CBL ranks Asia as one of the worst emitters of spam on the planet, I figured I had better pay this region a visit. My trip was thoroughly interesting and enjoyable. Whether it was battling Manila’s rush hour traffic and smog, cheering and boozing with a group of bankers at the Rugby 7’s in Hong Kong, or admiring Singapore’s breathtaking new architecture, I learned a few key things about Asia: it’s the future, it’s wireless, and there are lots of poor people. And this is perhaps why so much spam comes from Asia.

Hong Kong: Mobile World

My Asian home base during March was in Hong Kong, where I met with the major mobile carriers to discuss outbound spam. Non-work highlights included dancing at the various night clubs of Lan Kwai Fong, shopping in Mong Kok’s vibrant street market, and swimming with the masters club at Wan Chai Training Pool. Not to mention thoroughly enjoying the Rugby 7’s (Google it if you are so inclined).

Hong Kong has what I would consider to be the world’s most competitive mobile telephone market. In Hong Kong, seven major carriers compete for customers in this the world’s most “vertically oriented” city. Mobile broadband is ubiquitous, and wireless service is incredibly cheap. In Hong Kong, you can buy pre-paid (i.e. no commitment) wireless service for about USD $3/day, which includes unlimited data, unlimited voice, and unlimited texting. As a visitor, this is just mind-blowing. And did I mention the pre-paid SIM card, which costs about USD $15, includes $15 worth of credit? Hong Kong wireless service is so competitive that most people have more than one mobile phone – penetration of wireless is at 170% of the population (source).

Pie chart of IP reputation for a major Hong Kong mobile network

Trouble is, Hong Kong’s networks originate a great deal of spam (data courtesy of SenderBase). The pie chart at right summarizes the IP address reputation of all of the email-sending IP addresses owned by a major Hong Kong-based mobile operator. The pie chart represents over 5,000 IP addresses, which is a small slice of the IP address space owned by this operator about which SenderBase is aware.

Fortunately, Hong Kong operators are aware of these issues and are taking steps to contain outbound spam through a variety of techniques, including transparent spam filtering and outbound spam filtering at mail relays. This is much more, sadly, than one can say for other operators in the region, which originates a very large proportion of the world’s spam.

I hope to return to Hong Kong in the very near future and am looking forward to exploring Lan Kwai Fong once more, as well as making greater use of the fantastic and cheap Public Light Bus service (people from Hong Kong will laugh at this).

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