Spam, Spam, Spam, Spam

Put your "Make Money Fast" where your mouth is, Microsoft!

Auntie was skimming through her Inbox the other day, idly deleting offers to enlarge various parts of her anatomy, lower her mortgage rate and split ill-gotten Nigerian gains, when Fabio looked up from his own browser session on the far side of the sunroom. He called my attention to a new essay from Microsoft entitled, “Spiking The Spammers” (http://www.microsoft.com/ issues/essays/2003/02-12spam.asp). Even though it’s going on five years, many people don’t know about the “Microsoft on the Issues” series in which the omniscient editorial voice of Redmond helps us sort out society’s problems through the proper use of software.

In this particular installment, the anonymous writer offers the apparent official Microsoft line on unsolicited commercial e-mail: Use filtering at the ISP level and at the client (Hotmail and MSN are cited as sterling examples of this plan) and enforce the current laws against fraudulent spam. Oh, and “new, strong laws are needed. At a minimum, senders shouldn’t be allowed to misrepresent their identity, falsify the subject of a message, or use automated means to gather e-mail addresses without the owners’ consent.”

For his URL-mining, Fabio was rewarded with the sight of this ex-rodeo star (thought you knew all my history, did you?) spitting cornflakes and milk across the room. After I finished ranting and raving, he went to fetch the mop, casually suggesting that it appeared I’d just come up with another column topic. You know, I think he’s right.

Here’s my advice to the Mothership: Don’t break your arms patting yourselves on the back, boys. No matter how good the filtering is in Hotmail and MSN (and I’ve heard conflicting reports on that score), the spam protection in your flagship e-mail client—Outlook—stinks.

For those who haven’t tried it, Outlook 2002 lets you turn on spam filtering by selecting Tools | Organize, and you can tell it to assign junk and “adult content” messages their own color or move them to their own folder. Your humble correspondent has tried this, as have many of her friends. The verdict? It doesn’t work for beans. Outlook 2002 uses a simple list of blocked words to identify “bad messages.” The list isn’t long enough to catch everything, yet it still manages to grab legitimate messages by mistake. Although you can fine-tune it by writing your own rules or by using sender whitelists or blacklists, Outlook 2002’s spam-fighting strategy is anemic and outdated.

That’s not to say that there isn’t a good way for Outlook users to avoid spam. There are plenty of third-party products that work with Outlook or Exchange and do a superior job of filtering spam. These products use more modern approaches such as Bayesian filtering, real-time blackhole lists, regular-expression filtering and multi-dimensional weighting. There’s no magic here, just some development time. So why hasn’t Microsoft invested that kind of time in Outlook?

But, wait, I hear you say: There’s a new version of Outlook coming out. Surely things will be better then. Microsoft can’t still fail to take spam seriously in 2003, can it? Well, Auntie doesn’t know for sure but the “gosh-wow” demonstrations of Outlook 11 have, so far, concentrated on a new display layout that makes messages look more like sheets of paper. (Great. Now I’ll see the spammers’ letterheads in the proper proportions.) Perhaps there’s a new and wonderful spam filter coming, but if so, we haven’t seen it.

I fear the answer is that Microsoft doesn’t take spam seriously because it’s not a serious problem in the Redmond realm. Presumably, the company has its own high-end filters so, in that little universe, spam is a minor nuisance.

I just hope Microsoft gets a clue and cleans up the mess soon. Oh, and while you’re at it, Microsoft—could you send someone over to help Fabio clean up this mess you made me make?

How much of your day do you spend on spam? Got the perfect solution for the poor, beleaguered Outlook user? Let me know at auntie@mcpmag.com and get the chance to win an MCP Magazine hat. The best comments will be published in a future online column.

About the Author

Em C. Pea, MCP, is a technology consultant, writer and now budding nanotechnologist who you can expect to turn up somewhere writing about technology once again.

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