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Slate: Spam is killing e-mail
...Or at least it's about to destroy the e-mail we're used to: the tool that lets a stranger respond to something you posted on your Web site or that lets a potential client contact you after reading an article you wrote. E-mail is pervasive because it's simple to use, remarkably flexible, and it reaches everyone. The trouble is that e-mail is too good at that third task. Because e-mail inboxes are open to anyone, longtime Internet users now receive hundreds of spams per day, making e-mail virtually unusable without countermeasures.
SPAMMERS AND FILTERS
The most common countermeasure, server-side filtering, has serious limitations. No automated system can identify spam as well as a human can. Internet service providers certainly try: They block known spammer addresses and use algorithms to identify spam based on an e-mail's contents, subject line, or other headers. AOL and MSN both trumpet spam filtering systems like this in their latest software, and Yahoo! and Microsoft's Hotmail offer junk-mail filters for their Web-based e-mail services.
But the filters are running out of gas. The spammers keep multiplying, and they keep finding clever ways to fool the systems designed to stop them. Promising newcomers such as CloudMark, which taps the collective power of e-mail recipients to identify spam, may improve things for a while. But there will always be a trade-off between catching all the spam and ensuring that every piece of legitimate e-mail gets through.
RISE OF `WHITELISTS'
So, sophisticated Internet users are turning to a new approach. Instead of trying to block spam while allowing everything else, these users employ software that blocks everything except messages from already known, accepted senders. These systems, called "whitelists," change e-mail from an open system to a closed one.
Whitelist applications available today include MailFrontier , ChoiceMail from DigiPortal, Vanquish, and the freeware Tagged Message Delivery Agent. There's also a whitelist option built into Hotmail, known as the "exclusive" setting. Though it's hidden in the preferences menu (click "Options," then "Junk Mail Filter"), more than 10 percent of Hotmail users reportedly invoke it. Before long, expect all e-mail applications to offer this function.
Whitelists typically allow e-mail from everyone in a user's existing address book. Other, unknown senders receive an automated reply, asking them to take further action, such as explain who they are. Or senders may be asked to identify a partially obscured image of a word. A person can make out the word, but automated spammer software can't.
The link for this article located at MSNBC is no longer available.