Twitter: Attack emails drop from 110 million per day to a few thousand

Adopting protocol called DMARC pays big dividends, says Twitter postmaster

There used to be a whopping 110 million attack messages per day spoofing the Twitter domain name as cyber-criminals blasted out fake Twitter e-mail at intended victims to try and fool them into opening dangerous malware-infested links and other scams. But by adopting a messaging authentication protocol called Domain-based Message Authentication, Reporting and Conformance (DMARC), Twitter has seen that number drop to a few thousand.

Lo and behold, it works!

— Twitter postmaster Josh Aberant about DMARC

“Lo and behold, it works,” says Josh Aberant, Twitter’s postmaster in charge of messaging.

DMARC first started about two years ago as a cooperative effort among Google, Microsoft, Facebook, and eBay’s PayPal unit, among others, to combat the scourge of spoofed e-mail that will mimic the domain names of well-known companies. 

DMARC works by checking that e-mail truly originated from where it was supposed to. Organizations that support DMARC can monitor for fake e-mail and quarantine or block it. Aberant said Twitter, working with partners Agari and Message Systems, decided to block the bad e-mail that the DMARC protocol identifies.

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Aberant says he was shocked when he first saw monitoring that showed there were 110 million attack messages per day abusing the Twitter name.

By combining what’s called “DomainKeys Identified Mail” and the “Sender Policy Framework” with the “Authentication Failure Reporting Format,” DMARC represents the most comprehensive approach to preventing email abuse and protecting sender brands that the Internet industry has offered to date, according to Alec Peterson, chief technology officer at Message Systems.

Because DMARC is supported by the major Internet e-mail service providers, including Google, YahooMail, AOL and Microsoft, Twitter estimates about 90% of Twitter’s user base globally is covered under the DMARC filtering umbrella. Several Chinese ISPs have implemented DMARC as well. But Aberant would like to see more European telecommunications firms and those in the private sector join the DMARC effort to see the momentum build.

Twitter’s DMARC project, which took several months, involved working with a number of outside companies, the business partners such as Salesforce.com, to achieve a kind of “identity alignment” in messaging using the DMARC protocol, says Aberant.

Making sure DMARC authentication works properly means you have to “get a hold of the right people that manage the mail infrastructure,” he points out. Because Salesforce also happened to be using Message Systems, it was a fairly simple configuration change. But in other instances with business partners, the conversion to DMARC can be somewhat more demanding.

Ellen Messmer is senior editor at Network World, an IDG website, where she covers news and technology trends related to information security. Twitter: MessmerE. E-mail: emessmer@nww.com

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