Spam filters: Is the cure worse than the disease?

Spam filters that block e-mails containing certain, censored four-letter words are creating headaches for a growing number of innocent people who, through no fault of their own, possess names that automatically set alarm bells ringing.

One such person struggling to get his e-mails through is Craig Cockburn, a senior IT application specialist for the Scottish Tourist Board.

A staunch user of e-mail applications for over 21 years, Mr Cockburn first stumbled upon all this more than a year ago when he tried to update his Hotmail account.

The online registration insisted that his name, pronounced Co-burn, contained characters that were unacceptable.

Filters have also been known to block messages containing the word "specialist" because it contains the letters "cialis," the Viagra-like drug.

As amusing as this may be to all of us who don’t struggle with this problem, it actually points to a bigger worry – the increasing unreliability of e-mail.

Many companies are now refusing to pay for spam-filtering products to block unwanted e-mail, fearing that "false positives" - wanted e-mails incorrectly labelled as spam - will be blocked.

About 55 percent of companies without spam filters fear false positives, according to the Radicati Group, a technology consulting firm based in California, USA.

And 75 percent of companies with filters said preventing false positives was more important than stopping spam.

To prevent false positives, many e-mail users set their spam filters to be less stringent. But this lets more spam through, analysts said.

"If you scale back the filters to eliminate the false positives, then why have the filters to begin with?" said Clarence Morey, product marketing manager with NetIQ.

E-mail security companies disagree as to what filters should do with spam when it is captured.

Most put it in a quarantine folder, which users can access to determine if any legitimate messages were incorrectly labelled.

But critics argue that e-mail users should not be asked to look at a spam folder, since they purchased a filter to avoid spam altogether.

The imperfection of spam filters has fuelled a push toward a system that would allow messages from certain "trusted senders" to be immune from spam-filtering devices, which would require senders of e-mail to verify their identity.

And some Internet providers are testing systems designed to filter out messages that come from anyone looking to hide their identity. As most spammers employ a series of computer tricks to mask the source of their messages and avoid accountability.

Though spam is one of the biggest headaches facing the industry to-date it appears that the cure, while not worse than the disease, is at least adding to the pain.

Sources: IAB, NetIQ, San Jose Mercury News, Radicati Group, The Washington Times

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