Outwitting spammers

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Software in this genre runs from $15 to $20 for a 500-user license and drops considerably for larger installations. This fee includes the gateway software and the ongoing service subscription, vendors say.

Lost advantage from automation

Vendors using a neural network say their products detect new spam methods faster than competitors without one. But gateway filtering methods other than neural networks also use the mass phony in-box model, with one example being the fingerprinting Brightmail uses in Antispam Enterprise Edition. So you could fairly call neural networks just another back-end technology that depends on how quickly updates are available and applied. Needing constant updates is the reason that self-learning filters such as Bayesian were created. It is even the downside for gateway filtering products that use Bayesian filtering, such as ProofPoint's software. All this means neural networks are not automatically a harbinger of a product's superior performance. Plus, the effectiveness of any spam product depends as much on tuning as its technology. (See our product review "Spam in the wild" ).

Questions for your anti-spam tool vendors

Does the filter run on the gateway or the client?
How does your product adapt to the new ways spammers have devised to foil filters?
If updates are required, how quickly are they made available ?
How does the product protect against false positives?

How can the product’s spam analysis

be adjusted if it labels too many false

negatives?
What kind of spam analysis tools does it include?

Still, users such as Dave Jordan, chief information security officer for Arlington County in Virginia, say that continuously grabbing updates is a small price to pay for always-effective gateway filters. In January, Jordan added Symantec's anti-spam filters to the Symantec anti-virus tool Arlington uses and watched as the filters immediately blocked up to 2,000 unwanted e-mails per day. "This has been an easy introduction of new technology - and new technology is usually disruptive," he says.

As long as spam remains a cat-and-mouse game between companies and e-mail marketers, vendors will be pressured to make ever-more-intelligent and adaptive filters. For those who haven't yet investigated automated filtering techniques, at a 5% increase per month in spam, now is the time to do so.

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Network World, 09/15/03

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Copyright © 2003 IDG Communications, Inc.

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