SPAM busters

Wired News: Spam-Busters Report Good News
DUBLIN — They’re the scourge of the electronic age — the modern-day equivalent of the 19th century snake-oil salesmen hawking their miracle cures, love potions and get-rich-quick schemes. Like the rain in Ireland, there seems no escape from the tide of spam, or junk e-mail flooding the Internet.

But operating from the backstreets of the Irish capital, a small team of spam-fighters says it’s winning the battle against unsolicited e-mail that costs big business billions of dollars a year.

During the European day, employees at spam-filtering company Brightmail are engaged in a war of attrition against the propagators of unwanted e-mail all over the world before passing the baton to colleagues in San Francisco.

Spam-filtering companies like Brightmail have their work cut out — figures show the amount of junk e-mail surpassed legitimate e-mail for the first time ever last year.

And, police say, organized crime gangs are using spam to defraud online banking customers and distribute computer viruses capable of taking over an unsuspecting computer user’s machine.

To this end, they were given a recent boost by news that four of the biggest U.S. e-mail providers had sued hundreds of online marketers under a new federal law that bans the worst kinds of spam e-mail. And, the legal clampdown will intensify in Europe in the coming months, industry officials say.

“A year ago people were scared that e-mail was going to stop being useful because the amount of spam was increasing so quickly but now it’s starting to come under control,” said Ken Schneider, Brightmail’s chief technology officer.

Brightmail filters 80 billion e-mails a month, blocks two billion spams a day and looks after 300 million e-mail boxes the world over.

Since setting up in 1998, it has filtered spam for some of the world’s most prominent service providers, ranging from telecoms giant AT&T, EarthLink and Microsoft’s MSN in the U.S. to BT Openworld and Demon Internet in Britain.

The Dublin office has been up and running for two years, with Brightmail taking advantage of the relatively low-cost base and highly-skilled workforce on offer in Ireland.

Part of the problem is deciding what does and doesn’t constitute spam, which Brightmail estimates makes up around 60 percent of all Internet e-mail.

“We all receive unsolicited messages on a daily basis from our boss asking us to do something,” said Schneider. “You might consider it unwanted e-mail but it’s not generally thought of as spam.”

The problem comes with unsolicited e-mail that is sent in bulk to random addresses with varying subject lines to disguise their true intent.

Brightmail has two million decoy e-mail accounts in existence that attract unsuspecting spam e-mail and forward it to Dublin for analysis.

Rules are then written about how to block particular types of spam and are sent out to Brightmail’s customers to halt spam attacks in their tracks.

“We prioritize our attacks and go after the biggest first,” said Schneider.

He estimated the number of spammers around the world to number under a thousand with many buying CDs containing millions of e-mail addresses they use to ply their trade.

“You find some people who deny it’s spam and tell you they bought the e-mail addresses and you have to explain to them that the recipients never agreed to receive it,” Schneider added.