Spam assassin lurks

Oct 31, 2002, vol. 25, no. 5
By Carol Thorbes

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Academic computing services (ACS), which troubleshoots the Simon Fraser University campus community's computing woes, has a new assistant - the spam assassin.

The software tracks and alerts computer users about unsolicited bulk email (spam) filling up their in-boxes.

ACS has installed the free software on a server attached to SFU's email server. Endowed with an intelligent filter, the program assigns incoming email a score indicating its likelihood of being spam.

The spam assassin modifies the subject header to include the word spam in messages that score five or more and indicates the spam level with an increasing number of S's (i.e., Spam-Level SSSSS).

“This program allows you to visually identify spam messages more quickly and/or construct email filters to discard such messages,” explains ACS director Lionel Tolan. “A new option on SFU webmail also allows you to automatically filter any messages scoring five or more into a spam folder.”

ACS is looking at refusing to accept incoming messages that score more than a certain number, rather than accepting them and adding extra headers.

“We might be able to do this in an optional way so that one person may say ‘refuse anything bound for me that scores more than three' while another may say ‘refuse anything that scores more than eight,' ” explains Tolan. “With a computing community of 34,000 users, we have to be careful we don't create a censorship mechanism that's a bigger nuisance than the spam itself.”

However, spam management itself is a costly nuisance, says Michael Parent, an associate professor of business administration and an expert on management information systems at SFU.

“If your organization gets 10,000 spams annually, or just 50 spams per working day, this harmless pursuit has just cost your company $300,000. That's assuming your organization has 50 PCs connected to the Internet and the average salary is $60,000, including benefits,” says Parent.

Time spent sorting, filtering and double-checking spam in individual in-boxes and on the server to make sure something useful is not trashed racks up the cost.

Adding to the spam bill, is the cost of buying bigger servers to accommodate what is expected to be a 300 per cent growth between 2001 and 2006 in this “cholesterol of the Internet,” adds Parent.

Each in-box will be flooded with 1,400 spam annually, necessitating huge servers to accommodate the increase.

“It'll be like needing a 12 cylinder Jaguar instead of a three cylinder YUGO to carry around extra garbage.”

Although Parent equates today's anti-spam measures to trying to “sip from a fire-hose,” Gladys We is one happy camper now that SFU has the spam assassin.

“I combined the spam assassin score with a program for managing email, and I'm now down from 60 spam message a day to two,” says We.
The SFU program information coordinator in continuing studies used to spend up to half an hour a day handling spam.

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