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E-mail at a crossroads

Spam, phishing and other abuses are threatening to undermine confidence in the Internet. What will it take to solve the crisis before it's too late?

By , Network World
November 01, 2004 12:10 AM ET

Network World - E-mail is arguably the most pervasive application on the Internet, but it's under attack by an onslaught of abuses that are eroding its usefulness. If not reined in soon, these threats could change the nature of the Internet as we know it.

Problems plaguing e-mail and the Internet in general have hit epidemic proportions. Few users have escaped the insidious nature of spam, and more are falling victim to phishing, a growing form of online identity theft. Viruses often carry malicious code able to turn an unsuspecting user's PC into a "zombie" that, when summoned, becomes a spam-blasting mail server.

Sender authentication hits roadblocks

These aren't problems that a new version of Microsoft Exchange or some additional disk space can fix. The Internet community is hard at work developing technology responses to these threats, while U.S. regulators seek to use the few legislative tools they've been given to crack down on e-mail crime. Unwanted e-mail has become such a global headache that international organizations are spearheading efforts toward multinational anti-spam laws and regulatory bodies.

"We see what is at stake is no less than the protection and preservation of the Internet as we know it," says Robert Shaw, Internet strategy and policy adviser with the International Telecommunications Union.

Yet all these interested parties agree that there is no practical cure to e-mail abuse, there's only containment.

Communications crisis

Statistics tell the story of a problem that isn't about to go away. The ITU estimates that spam makes up about 80% of all e-mail sent across the Internet and costs the global economy $25 billion annually. In July alone, 1,974 unique phishing attacks were reported, according to the Anti-Phishing Working Group (see graphic for more statistics).

Worse yet, no one knows what's lurking around the corner. Spammers have notoriously been able to stay one step ahead of technology and in their wake have created an entire industry of spam filtering vendors that scramble to keep up with the latest tricks. Phishers create e-mails and Web sites that are practically identical to those they're spoofing, luring even savvy computer users into identity theft traps. The viruses that are turning computers into spam-sending zombies damage an innocent user's reputation and make it impossible to determine the real source of the e-mail.

In the world of e-mail, the abusers are calling the shots, and the technology industry is being led around by the nose.

"If you talk to people who use e-mail, certainly within the consumer ranks, they're saying it's too much trouble now, there's too much junk, and it's just too dangerous," says Greg Olson, founder and chairman of e-mail software maker Sendmail. "The whole thing is in jeopardy."

Yet few would go so far as to say e-mail will cease to be a popular communication mechanism. Not only have businesses invested too much time and money in building their messaging infrastructures and online customer relation strategies, but e-mail has become ingrained in Americans' work and lifestyles.

"We've built such a tremendous dependency on e-mail, I don't think we're in a position where we'll go back and say 'I'm going to start calling people or writing letters again,'" says Howard Schmidt, chief information security officer at eBay and former White House special adviser for cybersecurity. "As we look at the evolution of technology, we've overcome things and moved forward; this is just another thing to overcome."

Still, the days of sending and receiving messages without risk or nuisance appear to be gone.

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