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Computer experts work to can spam on campus

9/30/2002
October 1, 2002

Remember when “Spam” was mystery meat in a can, consumed only by desperately hungry bachelors?

Today spam has a whole new meaning. In the minds of computers users, spam is kudzu of the computer, an invasive species of electronic junk mail that's clogging mailboxes and turning e-mail into something scary.

College campuses are not immune to the invasion of spam; in fact, it may be a bigger problem, as student, faculty and staff directories are typically open to the public.

Matt Bennett, electronic communications specialist, says that spam isn't a major problem on the Austin Peay campus yet, but it's growing. “We had about 20 complaints in the last three months.” Many faculty and staff get a dozen or more spam messages a day.

Bennett says most of the messages are benign: Buy ink cartridges for less! Refinance your home now! Get a free cell phone!

But some cross the line from annoying to offensive, sullying the receiver's screen with violent or sexual images. Computer Services acts hastily to head off communications from these spammers.

“As soon as someone reports getting an offensive e-mail, we block the domain, so that site is ‘blacklisted' on the system,” Bennett explains. “The servers throws their messages into the ‘junk' file.”

But he says this after-the-fact approach to the problem isn't very efficient. “We're looking at anti-spam software. It sets up filters that screen out e-mails with offensive content.”

Though a step in the right direction, screening is likely to be partially effective at best. “Spammers keep getting smarter,” Bennett says. They devise ever-sneakier ways to circumvent anti-spam technologies and fool recipients. The most common: deceptive subject lines.

“Someone got an e-mail that said ‘from HR' the other day,” Bennett says, “and when they opened it, it was pornographic material.”

Unsolicited peep shows aren't the only consequence of spam. It's a significant economic problem. The collective time employees spend deleting e-mails and setting up filters is costly. Screening software consumes money that might have been spent elsewhere.

Spam also takes up space on servers, and that space is expanding. According to an article in the Sept. 23, 2002 issue of the “Chronicle of Higher Education,” the typical spam file now takes 20 kilobytes. Less than a year ago, it occupied three.

The same article reports that despite user outrage, anti-spam laws have proved “difficult and expensive” to enforce, though 26 states have tried. In some states, the laws are being challenged as violations of free speech.

So until laws are enacted or spammers are handcuffed by technology, what should we do about spam?

“Just delete it,” Bennett says. “Don't hit 'unsubscribe.' That tells them the e-mail address is a valid account.” In other words, they've reached a live human being who's actually reading the e-mail. Score! You'll get more.

“Tell us if it's offensive,” Bennett says, referring to Computer Services. But otherwise, think of it as junk mail. Don't read it. Don't try to track down the sender and give them what-for. “Just trash it.”