Hackers Unite To Fight Spam
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SPAM CONFAB: HACKERS TO RESCUE?
By Justin Jaffe
January 15, 2003
Hackers from around the world will converge on MIT on Friday to swap
intelligence and marshal their collective brainpower for the fight against a
seemingly indomitable opponent.
This time it's not Microsoft, DirecTV or the Recording Industry Association
of America . It's spam.
A recent Harris Interactive poll found that 80 percent of Internet users
found spam "very annoying" and 74 percent favored making mass spamming
For the beleaguered masses of the spammed, these hackers could be heroes.
It may be some time before any antispam laws make it into the books, but
experts say that antispam technologies, particularly e-mail content filters,
have the potential to tear down spammers' cottage industry.
"We can break the business model," said Bill Yazerunis, creator of the
CRM114 Discriminator filter (http://crm114.sourceforge.net/).
Yazerunis, who will present his research at the conference, claims his
filter can catch 99.9 percent of a user's spam without a mistake.
But until powerful filters like CRM114 find their way into the major e-mail
applications and on to free e-mail services like Hotmail and Yahoo,
antispammers and junk-mail marketers will continue to play cat and mouse.
With emissaries from academia, law, corporations, Internet service providers
and a growing number of dedicated antispam organizations, the battle is
drawing spam busters from all over.
Paul Graham , who organized the conference at MIT, has emerged as one of the
leaders of the antispam movement.
In August 2002, Graham published "A Plan For Spam," and ignited a spark in
the hacking community, inspiring a small battalion of programmers to build a
new generation of e-mail filters.
John Draper, one of the godfathers of modern hacking, has been spending his
spare time tracking spammers and studying their habits. His spam management
system, which he will introduce at MIT, should make it easier for e-mail
users to report spam to authorities like the Federal Trade Commission .
Michael Salib, a senior at MIT who first tackled the spam problem in his
artificial intelligence class, will talk about electro-engineering concepts
he has applied to filtering.
"I'm a hacker, not a theoretical person," he said.
Matt Sergeant, an antispam technologist and co-developer of the popular
SpamAssassin filter, believes that hackers can only do so much.
"Really, it's a matter of whether the big ISPs are going to make this their
responsibility," he said.
Sergeant also expressed ambivalence about antispammers sharing their tactics
so openly. "It's a bit of a pain in the ass," he said. "Paul's article
explained how to do it for everyone."
And that includes spammers.
Graham suspects that a handful of the conference's 500-plus registered
attendees will be spammers snooping for intelligence on how to beat the
filters, but he's not too worried.
"Any spam algorithm needs to work even if the spammers have the source
code," he said. "They've got to work even if (spammers) know exactly what
Asked what spammers might expect to get from the conference, Yazerunis
quipped: "broken legs."
Yazerunis was joking. Barry Shein is not.
Shein, president of The World , a small, Massachusetts-based Internet
service provider, says that while filters may help e-mail users manage their
cluttered inboxes, junk mail threatens the very existence of ISPs.
"It's not a game at all. It's like having crack houses in the neighborhood,"
Shein said. "Either the police do something about it or the neighbors will.
Somebody will get hurt."
Admittedly pessimistic about a filter-based solution, Shein will bring a
very different viewpoint to the conference. He sees more potential in legal
and economic solutions.
"Something at that level needs to be done to bring us back to sanity -- to
end the arms race."
Paul Judge, director of research and development for e-mail security firm
CipherTrust , agrees that filters are not the final word on spam.
"With any problem that you have in society -- theft, hacking -- you need
technical solutions as well as legal solutions," he said.
Joshua Goodman, a Microsoft researcher who will attend the conference,
"It's a little scary for us. We've got deep pockets," he said. "The spammers
have been using the laws to protect themselves. I think we need legislation
protecting good faith efforts to stop spam."
Until the government gets around to adding spam to its axis of evil, it will
be up to the hackers to lead the fight.
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