Friday, June 18, 2004

Sandwich Dilettantes:

Most of you are fighting a lot of Spam in your e-mail inboxes. Some of you have filters that help with sorting out the spam. Some of you even have ISPs that are trying to deal with the problem. Watching the spam though, is like seeing a battle unfold inside your inbox between the spammers and the filterers.

One of the obvious filtering strategies is to look for key words: Viagra, mortgage, etc. That's why the spammers have took to coding the words with such disguises as V1agra and m0rtgage. Such tactics serve two purposes: they evade simple filters, and they can still be read by the recipient. The only thing a filter sofware company can do can do is hire someone to add all these variants to its hunt-and-kill list. Or get its users to contribute to these lists (a la Cloudmark). Obviously this is an area where the human brain does a lot better at "error correction" than the automated filters, and the user participation is very effective. As many have pointed out, having all this coded product or service naming does make the advertised products look a lot less professional, and so there is probably a loss of efficiency for the advertiser there - but at fractions of a cent per e-mail, and with millions of targets, these are obviously still useful methods.

Other filter strategies include categorizing senders as spammers, and blocking all mail from particular addresses. But, as a lot of the latest viruses illustrate, sending e-mail with a fake origin address is all too easy. People send e-mail that looks like it's coming from,, and even all the time (although I'd be reeeally cautious about that last one).

One particular tactic I have seen lately is to add words from dictionaries to the spam. Often they are hidden simply by using a white typeface so that they don't show against a white background (a tactic that originated in websites trying to increase their ranking in search engines). Lately though, I have noted that many of these actually seem to be using some kind of program to generate random sentences, rather than simple lists of rather odd words. I would assume that this is to try and emulate a real e-mail message with other content, since filtering is now looking at syntax as a detection tool.

These results can often be quite amusing. That's where I got "Sandwich dilettantes" from. It has a certain ring to it, don't you think? There has to be a rock band out there that got its inspiration for its name from this kind of thing. "Any pit viper can make love" is another.

Can you imagine a future where spam is given credit for driving intelligent machine recognition of language? I can. It's happening right now. People are paying a lot of money to keep their in-boxes tidy.


At 8:21 AM, Anonymous James said...

Legitimate businesses do not use SPAM. They want paying customers, not irate complaints.

Remember that prohibition does not work. There would be no addicts if prohibition worked.

SPAM is profitable because there are ignorant people purchasing the goods or services offered by SPAMmers.

Want to end SPAM? The solution is simple, but it will be very painful at the start. Remove all technological and legal impediments to the use of SPAM. The ire of the recipients will take care of the rest when it is made clear there will be no interference from the government or the internet service providers. Even those that have been responding to SPAM will start to protest when their hundred megabyte mailboxes must be cleared of millions of SPAM messages each hour. This will be aided by newspaper, radio, and television announcements that every response to SPAM will generate more SPAM and that no legitimate company uses SPAM. This will take the profit out of SPAM by converting paying customers into irate complainers. The boycott supporters should also make it quite clear that only "opt-in" services will be tolerated. Want to advertise on the internet? Set up a web page and participate in the supporting web sites. Buy priority with search engines. Coupons work, I use them all the time for goods and services in which I am interested.



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