William Jackson | A cure for spam: Attack the cause, not the symptoms

Cybereye'commentary

William Jackson

LIKE MOST OF US, computer programmer Garth Bruen doesn't like spam, phishing e-mails or the other forms of junk that fill up his inbox.

Unlike most of us, he is doing something about it.

Filtering doesn't work, he said.

We have been filtering e-mail for years, and today, spam accounts for anywhere from 70 percent to 90 percent of all e-mail traffic, according to the best estimates. And although there have been some successful prosecutions, laws don't seem to be helping much.

The Can-Spam law makes it illegal to send unidentified, misidentified or misleading e-mail advertisements and provides civil and criminal penalties for spammers, but since it went into effect in 2004, the volume of junk mail has tripled.

The problem, Bruen said, is not spam itself. Spam is a symptom.

The real problem is the deceptive or downright unlawful activities being promoted through spam. If you shut down the online transaction sites, the spam will disappear.

Toward that end, Bruen has created KnuJon (www.knujon. com), an online subscription service where users send their spam and other unwanted e-mail, which it uses to take the offending sites off-line.

KnuJon ' that's 'no junk' backwards ' doesn't attack the sites directly. It uses the policies of service providers and hosts that prohibit spam and deceptive practices.

'There is a multitude of ways [by which] you can get a site shut down,' he said. But they can be difficult for the individual to pursue.

KnuJon has a policy enforcement engine with forensics tools to sort through thousands of unwanted e-mails to profile fraud operations so they can be shared with law enforcement agencies, financial institutions and service providers. 'We fill out the paperwork automatically and follow through on the process.'

KnuJon is pretty much a shoestring operation. 'Right now, it's me and my father,' he said. Retired computer science professor Robert Bruen handles the operations end, while the younger Bruen does the programming and development.

They charge $27 a year for subscribers who submit unwanted e-mail and receive reports on the enforcement process. 'I do spend a lot of time on this that my wife is not happy with.' But he is pleased with the results. He claims that more than 50,000 fraudulent sites have been shut down since March 2005, with more than 10,000 complaints pending.

That's an impressive number, amounting to 12 percent of the 400,000 discoverable sites engaged in shady online dealing. You may be asking yourself: If he's been so successful in getting these sites off-line, why is there still so much spam? The problem is that spammers are resilient, and there are plenty of service providers willing to take their money to host the sites. Eventually, that might change, Bruen said.

'We are inching our way to the tipping point,' he said. 'Hopefully, there is going to be a point of exhaustion where the service providers will say, 'We don't want these customers anymore.' ' Another question to be wrestled with is what constitutes spam. Millions of people apparently are taking advantage of offers made through unsolicited e-mail, and one man's spam may be another man's opportunity.

'We understand there is a huge gray area out there,' Bruen said.

But there are distinctions. Junk mail companies use spoofing to conceal their identity, and legitimate marketing companies typically follow accepted privacy practices and honor removal requests.

'We deal with each tier in a different way.'

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