Campus addresses growing spam issue

Get out of debt now.

Super-boost your manhood.

Don't let your boss see this.

We've all seen e-mail spam with supposedly enticing headings like this filter into our campus e-mail accounts. It's annoying to delete and it takes up valuable account space. Occasionally people find some spam to be a form of borderline sexual harassment.

No matter how a person feels about the messages, says Bob Ono, the campus's information technology security coordinator, "Everyone agrees that there is a cost to them."

And recently there's been an increase in the amount of spam passing through e-mail servers and into individual mailboxes. During the week of Oct. 14 some e-mail accounts reported receiving hundreds of unsolicited commercial e-mail.

The e-mail traffic seems to have slowed since, but in general spam is a growing problem, Ono said.

Jeremy Smith, who provides technical support for faculty, staff members and students working in Sproul Hall's social science offices, would agree. Over the past year he's seen a dramatic rise in the volume of spam his co-workers receive.

"Many of my users are getting as many spam messages as legitimate messages," he said. "Sorting the wheat from the chaff can be a serious time investment."

To study ways to curb spam's flow to university e-mail addresses, Ono will soon convene a group of campus technical support employees, along with staff from Information and Education Technology.

UC Davis is not alone in its spam problem, Ono said.

Universities from Brandeis in Massachusetts to the University of North Carolina and the University of Minnesota also reported a spam spurt during the week of Oct. 14. Campuses that provide student, staff and faculty e-mail addresses in directories are all easy targets, he said.

"There are some folks who mine these directories to get addresses and try to sell them," Ono said.

He's not sure why the increase two weeks ago occurred, however.

The campus has already decided to increase the number of probable spam-producing addresses that it will block at the server level. But that can also have the effect of stopping some legitimate messages from coming through to recipients, Ono said.

The campus group will also look at three other options to help cut the amount of spam e-mail users receive, or at least making it more recognizable. The choices include:

  • promoting the use of a spam-blocking software programs like Spamnix or SpamKiller. These programs, run at the desktop level, allow individual users to set the standards by which an e-mail is blocked.
  • putting a control function on the campus e-mail servers. UC Irvine already uses a program, Spam Assassin, which recognizes suspicious e-mails and adds a notation of "possible spam" to the e-mail when it delivers the message to its recipients. The email recipient can then segregate those messages to another e-mail folder.
  • using an externally managed service to isolate messages that have content with spam characteristics. Most of these types of systems store e-mail spam and, after proper authentication, permit users to inspect the isolated messages and retrieve those that have been misidentified as spam.

The campus spam group should begin meeting next week. Proposed solutions will then be discussed with faculty members, administrative staff members and student representatives, Ono said.

Smith said he plans to join the committee. He's in favor of a spam warning system such as UC Irvine employs. But he also wants to ensure the group deals with another issue that spam raises.

"We should not hide from spam by removing the campus e-mail directory from our Web pages or (using) similar measures," Smith said. "That kind of solution undermines the value of e-mail as a tool to help us get work done."

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