Assembling the Spam Puzzle

Filed as Features on June 2, 2008 10:00 am

Fighting spam has proved to be a nearly impossible task.

The best and brightest minds of the legal and technical worlds have failed to come up with solutions to stem the flow of junk email, splogs or spam comments.

Every new law or technological advancement has just been an escalation in a never-ending arms race between the many who hate spam and the few that send it out.

To be certain, spam plays a much smaller part in our lives today than it did a few years ago. We rarely see spam in our inboxes, spam comments are largely filtered out and only search spam seems to work with any reliability, especially with blogs.

However, the junk content keeps flowing at an ever-increasing rate. More and more junk email gets sent out every year, comment spam is on the rise too.

We have managed to treat the symptoms, but not the illness. This is because we have been dealing with how spam mails us, one issue at a time rather than looking at the bigger picture.

It is time to take a look at the spam puzzle and how it all fits together.


Nothing in a Vacuum

The problem is that spammers do not rely on one or two techniques to make their money. In fact, spammers routinely caution one another against relying on any one method too heavily as the door could be shut on the technique tomorrow.

The entire spammer system is built upon being able to survive shifts and changes. As such, they routinely use multiple techniques to achieve the same end. A comment spammer likely also scrapes RSS feeds, builds spam blogs, post forum spam and/or sends junk email.

Though not all spammers employ all techniques, most employ at least a few. It is the only way to ensure long-term viability when people are working around the clock to stop you.

Worse still, the attacks are often related. A comment spam effort may be used in tandem with a spam blog’s push to build search engine ranking for a particular site. Cracking a CAPTCHA system, such as Google’s may be used to both post spam blogs on BlogSpot and send email spam via Gmail

In the world of spammers, nothing happens in a vacuum. Spammers are constantly using a variety of techniques and routinely branching out farther. For example, the bot networks we routinely hear about being used to send email spam are often also used to send comment spam and to scrape blogs. This makes such spammers both harder to detect and hard to stop.

This hydra-like approach to spam makes spammers, especially the more prolific ones, very hard to completely stop and ensures that, with every approach they take, they bring only the best tools and techniques.

We have to be smarter if we are going to fight back against it.

Cooperation is Key

One of the major problems the good guys are having is that no one is talking to anyone else. Those tracking email spam aren’t talking with those battling the Web spammers, who aren’t talking to the anti-comment spammers and so forth.

There is no system in place for engaging in such cooperation and little interest in doing so. Simply put, everyone is interested in solving the problem they’ve been set forth to do and spammers are free to knock on doors until something lets them through.

This is an issue even within the same company. For example, reporting a spam blog to Google may get it removed from the index, but does not guarantee that it will get its BlogSpot account cut, lose its Adsense or even ensure that messages containing the URL are filtered in Gmail.

While it is possible to deliver major setbacks to spammers, it is almost impossible to completely destroy their operations. Like a tree with a few branches cut, the other branches can keep the tree alive until everything grows back.

For the most part, spammers have learned to cope with the frustrations thrown up by their opponents through a combination of flexibility and sheer numbers. If the anti-spammers were to work together, then no amount of flexibility could save them.

Conclusions

Spammers have always been best at exploiting the flaws of the Web.

They’ve relied on the fact that computers can throw up junk content faster than humans can pull it down. They’ve exploited the reality that if you send out enough email, some will escape the filters and a handful of gullible people will make purchases. They’ve enjoyed the simple truth that there are many bloggers and forums where they can post their comments without fear of filtering or reprisal.

We may never be able to stop this problem, bad people will always do bad things, especially on the Web. But we may be able to do better than just survive.

It is time to fight back against the spammers by depending less on technology and more on human cooperation. Though making it happen would require a level of partnership that has never been seen before, it could drastically alter the spam fight.

It may just be a dream, but it is one worth considering.

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  1. By sally posted on June 2, 2008 at 5:41 am
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    And its ironic that you write about this – just as the Blog Herald seems to have ‘upped’ its anti-spam comemnts game and comments I write now seem to always been earmarked as spam… It puts one off writing a decent comment to an article to then be warned it has to be approved, and then return a day later to see it was never posted. What’s the point in writing a comment?

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  2. By darin posted on June 2, 2008 at 1:17 pm
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    I dont know what the deal is.
    At my office I have implemented an anti-spam email solution and we literally do not have a spam problem.
    I’ve run web forums before and I never had a problem with spammers because the software ive selected had proper verifacation and spam protection.

    For companies like yahoo to have such a hard time dealing with spam is a joke. It really goes to show that they have have not taken the problem seriously.

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  3. By Spam Blocker Michael posted on June 2, 2008 at 9:31 pm
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    Spam is not much of a nuisance for end users any more . Google or Hotmail accounts protect account good enough from spam.

    The problem lies more with the provider who has to filter all that junk. CPU Time and diskaccess can spike when processing millions of junk email.

    Our service at http://www.mytrashmail.com received up to 2 millions junk email per day. You can imagine that our CPU and disk access is on its peak. For Yahoo, Google or Hotmail this is even a greater problem, they receive billions of junk every day.

    Personally I like Yahoos approach (Domain Keys) very much.

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  4. By Mike Dailey posted on January 17, 2009 at 3:42 pm
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    I think the key to the spam problem was mentioned in the article. Unless organizations begin to cooperate in the tagging and filtering of spam email we will continue to see spam as an “unstoppable” problem.

    Organizations deal with spam in an autonomous fashion. They simply block it for their own sake, with no mechanism to share data and statistics with other organizations. If a solution could be developed where the spam filtering engines report valid spam email to some type of “clearinghouse”, which could then pass this information to other filtering engines, we could begin to construct an effective means of impacting the amount of spam we see on a daily basis.

    This isn’t a perfect solution, but if the solution could impact a high percentage of spam it could make the effort to produce the unwanted email less lucrative.

    -Mike D
    http://www.daileymuse.com

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