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IETF to lead anti-spam crusade

By , Network World
April 12, 2004 12:06 AM ET

Network World - The Internet's premier standards-setting body is making its first attempt to develop messaging technology aimed at reducing the amount of spam flooding corporate e-mail servers.

Having researched spam for more than a year, the IETF this month formed a working group that will develop a standard mechanism to eliminate spam that uses a spoofed sender address.

"Identifying the sender of e-mail won't eliminate 100% of the spam problem, but [it] may get 50% to 80%," says Paul Mockapetris, a former IETF chair and the inventor of the Internet's DNS.

"Sometimes spam is sent from a machine where someone has installed a worm. Then the spam is coming from a trusted source so authentication doesn't help," Mockapetris says. "However, if I have a reasonable identification of the sender, I can at least be sure that I do get legitimate e-mail from repeat correspondents."

The IETF's new working group plans to develop a DNS-based mechanism for storing and distributing information that authorizes an e-mail server to send messages from a particular domain or network. The group is dubbed MARID because it will create message transfer agent (MTA) authorization records in DNS.

By targeting spam, MARID has set its sights on one of the biggest headaches facing corporate network managers. In March, 68% of all Internet e-mail was spam, according to anti-spam vendor Brightmail. Brightmail says it filtered 2.93 billion fraudulent e-mails in March, up 25% from the previous month.

"Everyone realizes this is a really big problem," says Andy Newton, co-chair of the MARID working group and a network engineer with VeriSign. IETF participants don't "want to spend a lot of time on infighting and political bantering. They're just focused on fixing the problem," he says.

The MARID technique will be most successful at eliminating spam when it is widely deployed across the Internet's e-mail servers, experts agree. However, corporations might choose to be early adopters of this technology to prevent spammers from spoofing their domains and eliminate outbound spam.

"A company like Citibank would probably like to make sure every bit of e-mail that comes from their domain is their e-mail," says John Levine, co-chair of the Anti-Spam Research Group run by the IETF's sister organization, the Internet Research Task Force (IRTF). "Companies can set policies that say if e-mail has this characteristic, it's really from us. If it doesn't, don't accept it. In some ways, MARID may help corporate networks more than it will help consumer ISPs because they have more control over their users."

MARID could be controversial, as it is expected to choose between authentication schemes backed by e-mail giants Microsoft, Yahoo and others.

The IETF already has received several proposals outlining ways to reduce spam by authenticating e-mail servers. Microsoft says it will submit to the IETF its Caller ID for E-mail Specification, which outlines a scheme for thwarting e-mail address spoofing. Yahoo is expected to submit an alternative proposal called DomainKeys, which use digital signatures to authenticate e-mail servers.

Despite market pressure, IETF officials say they are unlikely to adopt a proposal from Microsoft or Yahoo without making significant changes to it.

"The MARID work must take a step back and agree on what the problem is to be solved," says Patrick Faltstrom, a member of the IETF who directed the group's discussion in March on whether to establish a working group in this area. "After this has happened, [the group] can measure the proposals against the goal."

MARID plans to select a proposal by June and finish its specification by August.

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