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Defense practices good Netiquette

When we heard about the Defense Department's recent ban on formatted e-mail, we couldn't help but to nod in appreciation. The idea is just good Netiquette.

Those around when the Internet first flourished commercially might remember the term Netiquette. It sounds quaint today, but back in the day, when you first hopped online, you had to learn a set of rules'Internet etiquette so to speak'to stay in the good graces of the Cyber Elite.

These rules may have seemed arbitrary to the new users, particularly as they were flamed for not following such practices. Many prescriptions were supported by common sense though.

For instance, one rule I remember (and still try to abide by) was to always send e-mail in plain text. This was smart. Certainly, e-mail clients such as Eudora could fancy up electronic missives with all manner of pretty fonts and colorful backgrounds. The resulting e-mails may have looked nice to the sender, but there was absolutely no guarantee that the recipient (or recipients, if you were on a mailing list) had software that could render these e-mails correctly. Instead, what other users saw, more often than not, was a screen full of bracketed gibberish.

While most people use HTML-capable clients these days, staying plain ASCII or Unicode still is considerate for a variety of other reasons. For instance, plain text e-mail is more simple to archive, since the messages can be read and searched by any text editor (try finding something in a .PST file without Outlook itself). Plus, formatted e-mails take up more storage space and consume more bandwidth. In worst case scenarios, people would send (and still do occasionally) messages as attached Word documents, a practice as cumbersome as it is resource-insensitive.

So now the Defense Department is picking up on this old lesson, although for different reasons. The Defense Department's Joint Task Force for Global Network Operations is more concerned with security than courtesy, however. HTML-based e-mail is being banned because it could harbor malicious executable code, which would be triggered as the e-mail is being rendered. The markup language could also camouflage spyware scripts. (Oddly enough, attachments are not being blocked.)

In fact, the potential threat of maliciously-formatted e-mail is so severe that the JTF-GNO has put the services' IT shops on heightened alert (Warning: link is to a Word document). In military speak, this means that Information Operations Condition has been moved to Level 4 ('Increased Vigilance in Preparation for Operations or Exercises.') from Level 5 ('Normal Readiness of Information Systems and Networks'). A few of the Digerati on my old mailing lists must surely smiling right about now'.

Posted by Joab Jackson on Dec 27, 2006 at 9:39 AM


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