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Anonymity enables spam. Unfortunately it also enables many other important things as well.

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This is Leo Notenboom for askleo.info.

I was thinking about spam the other day. Or rather, a client of mine was as she bemoaned the fact that I recommended she obscure all the email addresses she might place on her web site. Since spammers harvest email addresses found on the web she was, in effect, asking for spam on her friends behalf by posting their email addresses as part of business contact information on her site.

I started to think about what is it that allows spam to proliferate so dramatically.

Then it occurred to me: lack of accountability.

Spammers can spam because there are no repercussions. They can send oodles of email without being able to be traced or identified in any reasonable way. Without being able to tell where the spam truly originates it's almost impossible to stop spam at its source.

"Spammers can spam because there are no repercussions."

My first thought was "Great! Let's make email accountable!" Let's make sure that you can always tell who the real originator of an email is. With system wide changes, it's possible.

But it'll never happen. Or if it does, it won't help.

The ability to communicate anonymously is a fundamental component of a free and open society. There are many valid and appropriate situations where the ability to say something, publicly or person to person, without needing to identify yourself is key. Email today has become one very important and convenient way to do exactly that.

And as a result the spammers tag along for the ride.

If we tighten down email so that anonymity isn't possible then those that need anonymity will find another way, either by abusing the system in some new way or by choosing another medium. And along with them will follow the spammers.

Unless we travel down a path where anonymous communication of any sort is impossible - a world I'm sure most of us don't want - there will always be abusers of that ability.

In other words, there will always be spam.

Maybe there's a compromise out there that will allow us to stem the tide, though like anything that's mostly a political, not technical battle.

90% of the email headed towards me is spam, and maybe that could be reduced.

But I can't see how it'll ever actually stop completely.

I'd love to hear what you think. What steps would you take, what changes would you make, that would stop spam without trampling on the rights of the innocent? Accountability seems like the biggest hole to me, but perhaps there's something else?

Visit askleo.info and enter 12106 in the go to article number box to access the show notes, the transcript and to leave me a comment. While you're there, browse the hundreds of technical questions and answers on the site.

Till next time, I'm Leo Notenboom, for askleo.info.

Article C3245 - December 22, 2007 « »

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Leo Leo A. Notenboom has been playing with computers since he was required to take a programming class in 1976. An 18 year career as a programmer at Microsoft soon followed. After "retiring" in 2001, Leo started Ask Leo! in 2003 as a place for answers to common computer and technical questions. More about Leo.

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5 Comments
William Chubb
December 29, 2007 2:42 AM

I think ISPs must take some responsibility for this, too. Those who require little or no authentication on the part of people signing up are only adding to the probem. To their credit, of those who appear to welcome virtually everyone into their e-mail system, Yahoo! does at least take action if you report a fraudulent e-mail which includes any reference to a Yahoo! account. Not so Hotmail who only yesterday refused to take action against a spammer who blatently uses Hotmail as a Reply To address. Because the original e-mail was not routed through their servers, they say, they are not prepared to take action even though the scam will be perpetrated by replies going through Hotmail servers. It's little wonder many corporate houses have e-mails from Hotmail addresses filtered out with no chance of arriving at a desktop.

rodolfo yannarella
December 29, 2007 7:42 AM

I use outlook. To me there are two kinds of spam. Spam from addresses and domains that I have previously recognized as such and new spam that reaches my inbox for the first time. Outlook has the option of deleting spam immediately and not having it appear at all in any box. But it does not make a distinction between spam tagged as such and sent to the junk mail folder and new spam.
I would like to see if there is a way of permanently deleting all spam previouly recognized as such but keeping the new spam in the junk mailbox until tagged as recognized spam. This is important to me because sometimes mail from new contacts is erroneously sent to the junk mailbox and I would like to have a chance of tagging it not junk. However mail taht I have tagged as junk I would not want to see and would like to have deleted immediately, and if possible sent back to the sender.
Thanks.

Burnsy
December 29, 2007 7:57 AM

Spammers do what they do, because there is a profit to be made. If there weren't any sales to be made, spam would dry up. Same with the drug trade. Legalize the drugs and the profitability on the street goes down.
Every municipality has a licensing for businesses who wish to sell a product. No license? No business. So Spammers who don't have a license to sell product are in violation of law. Those who offer for sale products/services over the internet have to have a supplier of that product. Target the sellers of those products/services offered by spammers, and you have a more precise target to curtail the spamming.... Take action on the legal producers/wholesalers of the spammed products, making them accountable as to whom their products are sold..... IF you can't stop the personnel who do the spamming, take away the product they spam..

thanks

Adrian Barrett
December 31, 2007 5:49 AM

It's always reactive with spam, so here's what i do:

My ISP supplied email address I use only to sent to my 'trusted' contacts, certain friends, work colleagues and institutions I can trust. I use a webmail account (Yahoo) for all my 'disposable' stuff, including regular web account details, updates, newsletters, website registrations, etc. The filters these days mean I see next to nothing spam-wise, with irregular checks to make sure nothing I want is erroneously labelled before deletion which I have set up to be automatic. That I can continue to use the same webmail account that I have for ten years and find it still a very useful tool with its filters and virus scan of all attachments (I also do it again after downloading) is nothing short of amazing to me.

I run a few websites, and nearly considered using one webmail address per site to avoid contacting problems however feedback is minimal and I find this unnecessary, so all is routed through to one address. I did use encryption to encode and hide email address links on my sites - although I've forgotten which I used! - so just copy and paste the link code on new pages. I also once used Hotmail (hasn't nearly everyone?), but after seeing spam increase from three a day to thirty-three a day in one day (I didn't even know it had a name back then) and then some I nearly scrapped using webmail accounts at all.

This is I know very subjective, but it works for me and my ISP email inbox remains pretty clear of rubbish of all types. Spam will never be stopped. Only when fifty years have passed and everyone learns computing naturally (in whatever form it takes) from their birthday will we all be PC-smart-er. But then, so too will be those with criminal tendencies....

George Arauz
January 1, 2008 5:23 PM

SPAM = money. And pretty much everytime you get a filter in email programs to not allow them to pass some find a way. Keep up with the new free downloads from reputable places (download.com) to get new filters on spam evasion.

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