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Fred's Views

Spammed in America

Today I sat down at my computer and started up my e-mail client. 27 messages (from one of my e-mail addresses). About the usual amount. Before opening any of them, I contemplated that of the twenty-seven, 20 would be immediately disposable spam; 6 would be "newsletters" that I more or less subscribe to, and have some interest, but that I seldom get time to read; and 1 would be something that I love to read every day: Dilbert.

So I checked my mail. I was a little off. But now, having weeded out the chaff, I have exactly six messages left, including Dilbert, which I hate to delete even after reading. None of the messages are "important" or "personal". Along the way, I quickly read two or three more that I subscribe to: CNN breaking news, for example, and then deleted them. But, essentially, my initial assessment was pretty accurate. Two or three of the messages I kept, I don't remember requesting. However, they occasionally offer interesting headlines. All of them are more or less on the subject of computers and more specifically web site design or promotion.

So that means that about 80% of my e-mail is pure junk. Today, in fact, I got at least five copies of essentially the same piece of spam - from two or three different "senders". While it took less time to delete the junk than it took to download it, it is still time and resource wasteful. I'd love to eliminate it, but how?

Many mass e-mail senders include "unsubscribe" instructions. Some promise to delete your e-mail address promptly upon request - and some do seem to do so. But I've also read that some simply use your request as proof they have found a "real" e-mail address - one to save and sell to other spammers. Many if not most true "spam" appears to come from individuals - probably people who have answered one of the billion or so "get rich quick" messages I get every year. It appears that they often end up sending out the same message that hooked them. Do any of them actually make money? Judging by the constantly changing array of "from" addresses, some possibly do, but I doubt if most make money and also doubt that any but the few who start the scam actually make any significant money. After all, even if "There's a sucker born every minute", one eventually runs out of people foolish enough to take this junk seriously. And that may be a shame because, every once in a while, there may actually be a legitimate mass mailing with a legitimate offer that may be worth consideration. Chances are, it gets lost in spamland.

Today, for example, there was an e-mail from McAfee (Anti-Virus software) offering to sell me their new version 7 at the equivalent to half-off (if you remember to send in the rebate). As an owner and user of McAfee (on one computer, Norton on another), I think I should be able to upgrade for even less than half the retail cost - but that's another story. My finances being what they are, I'll probably stick with what I have for a while yet.

So, can anything be done about "Spam"? Problem one: You don't want to make the Internet unavailable for small business or for innovative new ideas. That kind of eliminates one solution: set up a clearing house for legitimate mass-mailers who get to continue to send their mass mailings for the same low price. Every one else pays a fee for every piece of e-mail they send out. The fee should be low enough to have virtually no effect on personal e-mails, but the cumulative effect of sending out thousands or more e-mails should stop some spammers, hopefully. I consider "legitimate" mass mailers to be well established companies who may send ONE piece of mail per year to a "list". but, who normally send e-mail only to people who have actually requested it. They must also promptly (and completely) remove any address on request. But I also want to include small businesses that send out perhaps only a few dozen or few hundred e-mails, as long as they follow the above guidelines.

I don't like the idea of charging to send an e-mail. I don't even know how practical it is. Is there, for example, a foolproof way for your ISP to know when you are sending e-mail and when you are simply requesting a web page or some other communication? I assume there is. Some ISPs are able, I believe, to block mass mailings. But how much effort would be required (and I assume my ISP would be the logical choice to collect the payment) to charge and collect the fees? And where does the money go? I would prefer to keep the Internet as free as possible.

Another possible solution is to crack down heavily on illegitimate offers. If it's a scam (and how do we determine what constitutes a "scam") then it should be eliminated and the perpetrators should be charged. Or we could simply educate the public better. Both require a significant expenditure of resources. And where will the money come from?

Another possible solution might be to use "digital signatures" (Don't get me started about Windows XP and digital signatures). E-mail clients could be upgraded to stop and even delete any e-mail that didn't have an appropriate "digital signature". The problem, beyond getting everyone to upgrade their software, which is certainly not insignificant, is two-fold: It has to be fairly difficult for a mailer to get a legitimate digital signature. But it has to be very easy for me to get my "personal" e-mail which probably would not have a digital signature.

So here's my solution, that just occurred to me: Whenever I "subscribe" to a mass mailing, a digital signature is generated and stored on my computer, much as e-mail addresses are sometimes automatically stored (in your "address book") now. In addition, the operating system should be capable of creating a unique digital signature for the computer it is running on. This signature is automatically added to all out-going mail. On the receiving end, the software can be set up to flag all e-mail with unknown signatures; automatically delete unwanted signatures - or all unknown signatures - or automatically delete (or flag) all e-mail that is not addressed to an individual, appropriate e-mail address.

If all e-mail were required to carry a digital signature, let's say by January 1, 2004, we would have a method of controlling this nightmare. When I receive e-mail, some of it could be automatically deleted if it carried a signature from my "delete at once" list. Others could be flagged, requiring a single click from me to have it deleted this time only, accepted this time only, or to have the signature added to my accept or delete lists. I could have any e-mail sent to multiple addresses automatically deleted (if the signature was not on my accept list) as well as any e-mail directed to an address that does not precisely match my accepted addresses. I have, for example, received e-mail addressed to non-existent addresses at my domain, and even sometimes to addresses that are not in my domain at all. In other words, I may have received someone else's junk mail. This still leaves us with the problem of spammers who constantly change their "from" address, but it would help. Tampering with or acquiring someone else's signature should be equated with forging currency - a felony with serious jail time.

Would it work? I really don't know. I just wish there were some way to get these people to act responsibly. They seem to think that if they only bombard me with enough spam, I will eventually give in and send them some money, perhaps just to stop them. I can think of no other reason why I receive so much junk. The truth is, I would love to find a legitimate method to make some money (a reasonable amount for a reasonable amount of work) working from home. Maybe someone actually sent me a legitimate offer, but I discarded it along with all the spam. How would I know? How could I possibly separate a legitimate offer from all the chaff? It would be nice if there was some kind of "clearing house" that had the resources to check out spam "offers" and report on exactly what the offer is and what the chances are of actually making money without becoming a spammer yourself. Education, after all, may still be the most effective tool against spammers.

For the time being, it seems, I'll be stuck with wearing out the "Delete" button as my "low-tech" solution to a "high-tech" problem.

Copyright © 2002 by Fred Oldfield. All rights reserved.

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