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Winning the War on Spam

  • March 01 2004, 1:00am EST

On January 1, 2004, the Controlling the Assault of Non-Solicited Pornography and Marketing (CAN-SPAM) Act, signed into law by President George W. Bush, went into effect. This act is arguably the first significant step the federal government has taken to help resolve the colossal "spam" problem facing computer users nationwide –­ and around the world. Although The CAN-SPAM Act does not illegalize "junk" e-mail, it does require spammers to shoulder more responsibility for their actions, including identifying themselves to the public and eliminating intentionally misleading subject lines. It also provides for violators to be prosecuted and fined up to $2 million.

The federal CAN-SPAM Act is a step in the right direction and will complement the 26 state anti-spam laws currently in effect; however, it is not an end-all solution to the problem. According to the Brightmail Logistics and Operations Center (BLOC), in November of 2003, 56 percent of all Internet e-mail was identified as spam. This staggering percentage underscores the scope and ramifications of the issue, an issue that information technology (IT) managers have been wrestling fruitlessly to control for quite some time. In an ideal world, there would be one easy fix –­ purchase an inexpensive piece of software and never get spam again! However, this is not an ideal world, and available technology still allows spammers to evade anti-spam software as easily as clicking the send/receive button.

Because the Internet has become a major and often preferred vehicle for marketing products and services, computers are infested with spam on a daily basis. The problem is overwhelmingly pervasive and debilitating, perhaps most so at the enterprise level. Spam can cause losses in productivity and threaten networks with viruses, affecting everyone from the executive suite to the mailroom. It is estimated that a company with 15,000 employees may be faced with $12 million in spam-related costs annually, and this number is expected to grow almost 100 percent per year.1 The reality is: we live in the spam generation.

The Challenge

Eliminating spam is such a challenge that even the federal government has now become involved. Despite the government's new initiative, hundreds of anti-spam software options, spam reporting, IP blockers, e-mail tracing and more, the problem is bigger than ever. In fact, left unchecked, spam is expected to increase 63 percent by the year 2007.2 Additionally, it seems as though some of the available solutions lead to even more setbacks. For example, some anti-spam software programs exacerbate the problem by failing to recognize and capture all spam and inadvertently misdirecting legitimate e-mails to a spam folder. The challenge is all too apparent, especially as spammers continue to develop technologies and methodologies that allow them to spam unheeded.

Is there a viable solution to this problem? Undoubtedly, there are many to be considered. It seems, however, that the issue will best be resolved the same way IT managers deal with any problem of this magnitude –­ by initiating a major project combining the best technical and management solutions. This effort must be coordinated and cooperative, as trial-and-error measures are simply too inefficient and risky when it comes to securing company data. If spam is left unchecked and deemed an unsolvable problem, it will continue to be just that. However, if our industry starts to view the reduction/elimination of spam as a cooperative project and realizes that it will take time to coordinate and implement several measures in order to be successful, the problem may be resolved sooner than expected.

Project Spam

The spam problem is not new, and a completely effective solution does not exist. Unfortunately, as the IT professional, your organization looks to you for a solution. With pressure mounting to achieve the seemingly impossible, the challenge is issued to make this a priority research and development project. As with all projects of this magnitude, you will need a team in place that can carry out research and testing, a well-conceived plan, a timeline that keeps you on schedule, a realistic budget that will fund the project and, of course, executive buy-in. Industry estimates indicate that companies spent in excess of $600 million to deploy anti-spam measures in 2003, and that number will grow to $2 billion by 2005.3

Spam is a problem that is not going away on its own. The only groups of people that are skilled at both a technical level and a management level, and can break ground with the spam problem, are IT managers. The gauntlet has been thrown down; the challenge put forth. In the meantime, the CAN-SPAM Act will be our benchmark for success in the fight on spam.

1. Basex, New York. "Spam E-mail and Its Impact on IT Spending and Productivity," December 2003.
2. Spam Filter Review 2004.
3. Basex, ibid.

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