University of Texas Gets Medieval on Spam (Tracking)

download (1)Dealing with email spam is often a reactionary process; we’re all busy working on other daily tasks, and when the nasty stuff comes in, it’s a frenzy of crapulence that can quickly get out of control. Whether you’re a systems administrator or an end user, the result is the same. You flag the mail as spam and give it an unceremonious one-way trip to the trash can, hoping that this will be the time when the madness will truly come to an end. Well, researchers at the University of Texas have taken a different approach to spam. Rather than take it sitting down (okay, chances are they’re sitting down in any event), the researchers are taking the battle to the Interwebs to figure out where the social disease known as spam is being spawned.

Since 2011, researchers at the Center for Research in Electronic Commerce (CREC) at the University of Texas at Austin have been putting a tail on spam and reporting it on their website, And it’s a pretty interesting read. Complete with a nifty infographic that nails down some useful facts and tips, there’s a great article on the university’s website that tells the tale of these stalwart spam warriors.

CREC Director Andrew Whinston points out that the main source of spam is the users whose computers have succumbed to malware. “Most spam is sent from computers compromised by botnets or phishing.  The same security problems that let those problems in could be used for worse things, ranging from denial of service attacks to identity theft to blackmail to alteration of financial records.” publishes the organizations that are hosting spam, and often the hosting is done unwittingly. The hope, the article points out, is that “bad publicity will influence these companies to fix their security problems.” John S. Quarterman, the senior researcher on the project and author of a number of books about the Internet, points out that if the approach is successful, it will “enable a strong policy argument that more disclosure of breaches for more reputational rankings would improve security even more.” Amen to that.

The endgame

The endgame seems to be to change the way people think about spam. “The Spam Rankings project’s leaders hope you will recognize spam as more than annoying clutter.  Far from a mere nuisance, they suggest, spam is the smoke that signals a dangerous fire. Spam at its worst poses a security threat and portends infection and theft.” The ranking show progress, too. “Some organizations, including hospitals, have made dramatic improvements over a few months, with some appearing to have cleaned up their spambot problem entirely.” The article concludes that this project is working. “The companies really did clean up their act partly in response to the rankings. Quarterman also noted that SpamRankings has even received a letter from one large medical group saying “The listing on your site added additional impetus to make sure we “stay clean” so in that regard, you are successful.””

It’s all in the numbers

Interestingly, the July 2013 snapshot – provided in the infographic – shows that 2.9 billion spam messages were sent from the U.S. that month, or ten spam messages sent per man, woman and child. Other interesting statistics:

  • France and Denmark sent out the most messages per man, woman, and child in July, at 15 and 16 messages respectively
  • Among the top 10 countries, the U.S. was responsible for more than one-third of spam messages, at 38.9%
  • July 31 saw the most spam traffic in July, with 95.01 million messages sent
  • July 18 saw the least spam traffic in July, with 54.24 million messages sent
  • Of the top 10 U.S. organizations unwittingly hosting spam, there are several cloud providers, Internet hosts or providers, and cable companies, including Comcast Cable (number 3), Cogent PSI (number 7), and Verizon Internet Services (number 9). The top 10 companies hosted 1.2 billion messages in the month of July, or 27,000 emails per minute

The article, and the site, certainly provide a lot of useful information, and seeing the information in this light – especially the rankings themselves – puts the spam discussion in a whole different light. The project at University of Texas at Austin is a noble one, to be sure, if only to help educate those who know how much they hate receiving spam, but who may not stop and look to see if they’re actually contributing to the problem.

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