A new approach to fighting spam?
Spam and the uncertainty that spam filters cause has dramatically reduced the effectiveness one of the most popular uses of the Internet. Maybe it’s time for a different approach to filtering email.
Phones and email are both about equally useful: given the choice between giving up their phone of giving up email, people are about evenly divided. When comparing e-mail to other Internet technologies, however, it's no contest. Given the choice between giving up email and giving up browser-based web access, people cheerfully give forgo the web in favor of email. The web may be nice to have, but email is a necessity, and most businesses really can’t function without it.
Unfortunately, almost all of today’s email traffic is spam so it’s necessary to separate the spam from the legitimate messages before they get to users’ inboxes. If you don’t do that, users are quickly overwhelmed by the sheer volume of spam that they receive.
Spammers are clever, however, and quickly find a way to get around the latest updates to spam filtering software. That’s possible because filtering applications use the latest models of what spam looks like to help them decide whether or not to let a message pass. Once spammers learn what filters look for, they quickly invent a way to get their spam past the filters.
Maybe an entirely new approach to filtering email is needed, and the fact that most email is actually spam may be the insight that we need for this. In particular, instead of trying to identify spam, why not try to identify legitimate email messages instead?
Note that this is entirely different from white-listing. With white-listing, an approved list of names, domains or IP addresses is used to allow incoming email. Instead, this approach looks at the content of an email and tries to decide if a particular message is legitimate. White listing doesn’t look for valid email messages. An entirely different model may be needed to do that.
Information security vendors have spent lots of time and effort over the past several years developing ways to identify spam. The benefits of this research have been temporary at best because spammers quickly learn to avoid the most recent versions of anti-spam filters. But while the arms race between spammers and anti-spam vendors has led to all sorts of unusual messages that are designed to pass filters undetected, the format of legitimate emails hasn’t changed much at all, and because of this, identifying legitimate emails may be a better strategy than identifying spam.
Looking for legitimate emails seems to be very simple to implement because it can be done with a minimal change to existing networks. All that’s needed is different logic on anti-spam filtering products. Everything else can stay the same. That seems much simpler than some of the alternatives that have been proposed. Simple is definitely good. It might even be effective.
I haven't heard of this approach being used. Maybe there's some obvious reason why it won't work.