Mac Lab Report

Education the Key to Killing Spam

- 2006.08.09

Mail's spam filter is pretty good - it gets probably 98% of the spam that I receive (and I get a lot). Still 2% of a thousand messages is pretty significant.

Two kinds of messages that Mail's filter fails to recognize are what appear to be totally blank messages (but probably aren't) and messages with only graphics attached.

I could be aggressive and turn on more stringent filtering, such as accepting messages only from known correspondents, but that's not much of a way to make new friends, is it?

Under the Junk Mail Rules preferences, you can set dozens of different characteristics to flag incoming mail. The only one you can select for attachments is the filename. I wish I could set it to detect any Windows executable files or identify specific graphics recognized by their file size and other properties. That would take most of the remaining spam I get, in particular this annoying thing about day trading I've been getting lately.

Another alternative would be to switch to another email client that has more versatile spam control. But I would hate to give up the integration with the rest of Apple's software, so the motivation to switch would have to be pretty powerful for me to consider it.

I'm also curious about why Mail's "training" mode requires you to turn off your junk mailbox. It seems to me that since the majority of junk interaction is missed positives (mail that gets through to your inbox) and very little of it is false positives (mail identified as junk that isn't junk after all - extremely rare for me), the logical thing to do is to allow Mail to continue to collect characteristics of mail classified as junk even though you're not in training mode.

The next thing for me to do is to reset the junk mail rules and start over, to see if Mail can identify these new kinds of annoying messages.

The War on Spam

My final thought that has been accumulating about spam is that it is sort of like the war on drugs. We attack the supply, but they just get more clever and find new ways around spam filters, such as using bots to steal email addresses from Windows users so the incoming mail comes from an address you know.

So we attack the spammers, who move their servers offshore, and use multiple layers of protection I'm sure I know nothing about. This is a little like attacking the drug suppliers and the couriers when they have huge financial resources just to try smuggling again a different way.

What we should be doing is producing a series of public service announcements (PSAs) teaching people how to recognize spam and not to respond to it.

The only reason the spammers spam is that it works. Spam-susceptible people read it, click on it, and perhaps one out of ten thousand actually spends money on it or follows the phishing link.

If we could persuade enough of the spam-customers not to spend money, then the spammers would go away. We've tried everything else, why not PSAs?

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is a longtime Mac user. He was using digital sensors on Apple II computers in the 1980's and has networked computers in his classroom since before the internet existed. In 2006 he was selected at the California Computer Using Educator's teacher of the year. His students have used NASA space probes and regularly participate in piloting new materials for NASA. He is the author of two books and numerous articles and scientific papers. He currently teaches astronomy and physics in California, where he lives with his twin sons, Jony and Ben.< And there's still a Mac G3 in his classroom which finds occasional use.

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