- The Washington Times - Monday, July 28, 2003

The difficulty of catching spammers

Tim Lemke’s article detailing the activity on Capitol Hill concerning unsolicited e-mail (FTC ironing out ‘Do Not Spam’ registry details, Business, Thursday) is void of important technical and legal details.

Generally speaking, with or without legislation, Federal Trade Commission rulings or judicial precedence, it is possible but improbable that any such enforcement action will have the slightest impact on the increasing level of spam. Here is why.

Rarely, if ever, is the authentic origin of the spam reflected in the e-mail header. The spam mailing programs place false information, which is commonly referred to as “spoofing.” Current Internet technology requires neither the stated return address nor the originating IP address to be authenticated. Even if either domain name or IP address exists, that does not indicate it is the actual origin of the e-mail.

To further cover their tracks, spammers are using Internet post office relays to move mail around before it reaches the intended recipient. Therefore, if you cannot trace the origin of the e-mail, enforcement rests on the shoulders of investigators to actually attempt to purchase products, then prosecute the nickel-and-dime product seller. No impact on spam activity there.

Mr. Lemke’s article mentioned that some spam is originating from non-domestic sources — the fact is, nearly all spam originates outside the United States and its territories. Almost any international country or village that needs cash will allow e-mails to be sent through its servers so it can share in the millions of dollars invested annually on spam delivery. Few enforcement possibilities there.

Even if we assume that a significant amount of spam is being sent and delivered domestically, which party can law enforcement go after? The person who is selling the product or service advertised by the spam e-mail or the person or people delivering the mail? Connect the two parties and you might have a case that will meet a legal test. But there is that all-important process spammers employ called e-mailer anonymity.

Nearly all of the advertisements arriving in your e-mail inbox were sent through a spam service that the customer — the person with the product — has never met and about whom he or she has no contact information. Funds are exchanged via Pay-Pal and other services to which the originating information creator and the spam mailer have such minimal ties that getting to the big-spamming folks is further hindered.

Even if law enforcement is successful in locating the original customer of the spam mailer (rarely the same folks), and of which the sender is surely non-domestic, the customer who is selling the item is a small-business person, just one of tens of thousands.

If authorities track down both parties, and if they can make a case that will withstand judicial requirements, the most they will do is fine them and put them out of business, but just those two parties. Low-level enforcement of this nature is unlikely to make a dent in the spam business.

Compare this issue with our inability to keep drugs from coming across the Gulf of Mexico in planes and boats. We don’t have the enforcement team to cover all the territory through which the drugs come. What drugs are caught represent a fraction of what actually hits the U.S. streets.

Now, try enforcement with the digital-language traffic of spam that moves at the speed of light. Can you imagine the enforcement team that would be required to catch even a few folks, much less prove in criminal or civil court substantially enough to get a conviction? Possible? Yes. Probable? Maybe. But enough to impact the increasing level of spam traffic? Unlikely.

Constitutionally, the act of spam is protected by the Commerce Clause as well as the First Amendment. On the issue of Interstate Commerce alone, any legislation limiting the delivery of e-mail (the business practice of advertising) across state lines, even to sell pornography, will be ruled unconstitutional. So, too, will the First Amendment preserve freedom of expression and access, except in cases of sexually offensive advertising — maybe.

Someone in Congress and the FTC needs to get a better grip on the technical and legal issues before proposing attractive-sounding but unenforceable legislation or regulations. All the legislation or regulation in the world will not stop spam if you can’t clearly investigate, enforce and prosecute offenders with a frequency and magnitude to deter its use.

The legislators and FTC are barking up the wrong tree. The answers to the spam problem will be found in research into new e-mail processing systems that have randomized controls on individual e-mail addresses or the like, where the controls are at the point of receipt and not the point of origin. Going after the point of origin is, from a technical standpoint, folly. Any experienced, seasoned Internet engineer will tell you the same.

Working at the point of receipt begins with Americans giving up the idea of immediate e-mail delivery and the deployment of an intelligent e-mail pooling system at the ISP level where the content of e-mails by the millions are compared for similar textual or graphical content. Then, however, we are treading on the constitutional rights of privacy. Even the idea of pooling will be circumvented creatively by spammers who hire technically savvy folks to outpace enforcement.

Don’t wait for any practical answers to come from Capitol Hill. Learn to use the Rules Wizard, a feature built into most e-mail programs — it is your primary line of defense against having to read unwanted e-mails.

Whatever you do, don’t try opting out with a return reply — that only confirms that you not only received but are reading the spam mail.

LANCE W. ORNDORFF

Alexandria

More than just ‘daddy’s girl’

Leaving aside without comment the pejorative terms “daddy’s girl” and “Miss Murkowski,” which were used in reference to state Sen. Lisa Murkowski in The Washington Times article “Tough times for daddy’s girl” (American Scene, yesterday), let’s re-examine Alaska’s upcoming Senate race.

Before she was appointed to fill the remainder of Gov. Frank Murkowski’s Senate term, Miss Murkowski was selected House majority leader for the Alaska State Legislature. As such, she would have been on anyone’s short list for appointment to a vacant Senate seat, a point her opponents never acknowledge. Since her appointment, Miss Murkowski has worked tirelessly for Alaska, successfully making a name for herself. If she does face a primary challenge, she will have a solid platform on which to campaign.

The declared Democratic candidate, former Gov. Tony Knowles, served two terms as governor, but this is not an indication of his popularity. He was elected initially with a 42 percent plurality of the vote. In the next gubernatorial election, the state Republican Party self-destructed and ran an independent against Mr. Knowles and the candidate voters chose to be the GOP standard bearer. Republicans stayed away from the polls in disgust, and Mr. Knowles eked out a second term with just 51 percent of the vote.

Though the popularity of the governor, Miss Murkowski’s father, may impact the Senate race, many of the “unpopular budget cuts” made by him were forced upon him by the mess left by Mr. Knowles — a point voters will take into account heading into the election.

Democrats may want to believe that Alaska’s Senate seat is ripe for the picking, but they are simply fooling themselves.

GRAHAM G. STOREY

Nome, Alaska

Hate-filled language

I have subscribed to your paper for eight years in the District, Virginia and now Gettysburg, Pa. I pay an extra premium to get the paper because I am out of the area.

Yesterday, you ran a full-page ad on A9 by the Everlasting Gospel Ministry. The ad attacks the Catholic religion with hate-filled rhetoric. I am Catholic, my family and ancestors were Catholic, and I am highly offended.

I called your paper this morning to register a complaint and was given a secretary in the advertising department. She was indifferent and defended running the ad as freedom of the press. There’s a difference between freedom of the press and hate-filled rhetoric.I can only assume you just ran the ad because of the revenue and didn’t examine or care about the content.

An ad attacking the Jewish or Muslim faiths with venom like this ad attacking the Catholic faith would never appear in your paper. No faith with people of goodwill and love would attack another religion with hate-filled language.

I am canceling my subscription to your paper and am going to do everything in my power to stop subscriptions among my Catholic and non-Catholic friends. I also am going to contact Catholic agencies in the Washington area to lodge a protest.

JACK GRANT

Gettysburg, Pa.


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