Security

Peter Cochrane's Blog: Is spam dead meat?

Spam's a burden on the net but little of it need reach inboxes...

Written at a Reading hotel and dispatched to silicon.com via a free wi-fi network.

We have all suffered from it and it wastes a huge amount of internet capacity and individual resources. However, there are signs that the spam problem might be abating.

At conferences, on the net, and in the media, there seems to be a persistent buzz and some alarm at the continued growth of spam. Estimates vary but research by security company MessageLabs estimates that 92 per cent of all net traffic is now spam - yet my perception is that it might be stabilising.

The big problem is actually getting accurate figures, and it isn't something that you and I can easily measure. But I have to say that while spam was a growing problem for me in the early days, and it certainly made me pay attention to my inbox and security, I have now more or less lost sight of it as an issue.

I almost eradicated spam from my life some years ago by the application of concatenated filters of the intelligent and dumb kind. Starting with my ISP and email service providers I adopted their technology options - diligently ticking all the appropriate boxes. Then at my home and office, for my laptop and other machines, I introduced additional filters. How effective are these? Take a look:

Spam in an email folder

A snapshot of an email spam folder reveals dozens of unwanted messages
(Screenshot: Peter Cochrane)

This is the spam folder of one of my email accounts last month. I reported each message so the provider could be sure of their status and automatically delete or block them in future.

My action is reinforced by other customers making the same reports, so we have become a company of filterers, acting in each other's best interest. As I, and thousands of others, continue to filter my email account, we increase the providers' intelligence and strengthen the server defences.

And so, what do I actually see in my email inbox for that same account, and what gets through? Here is the spam in my inbox on that same day:

A single spam message in the inbox

A solitary piece of spam has made it into the main inbox past the filters
(Screenshot: Peter Cochrane)

Just one item made it through the concatenated filters to reach my laptop screen that day, so I reported the item to my provider and designated it as spam on my email client.

That minor lapse is fairly representative. Generally, I see two pieces of spam items at most, and some days are totally clear.

Now there is one other vital thing that I, and many others do, and that is continually scan for viral and other forms of email, browser and application attack.

Keeping a clean machine and preventing it being used as a spam generator or client is just as important as filtering. In fact, it may now have become even more important. It is certainly far more difficult.

It would now appear that the spammers are moving on from crude phishing and infected video enclosures, and adopting new tactics with a focus on banks and pay sites.

All we can do is to keep our shields up and hope the institutions develop software to combat the added degrees of sophistication and cunning about to hit them.

About Peter Cochrane

Peter Cochrane is an engineer, scientist, entrepreneur, futurist and consultant. He is the former CTO and head of research at BT, with a career in telecoms and IT spanning more than 40 years.

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