Terry Zink's Cyber Security Blog

Discussing Internet security in (mostly) plain English

To collaborate or not?

To collaborate or not?

  • Comments 4

We're at the state now where the problem of spam has grown to the point that it threatens to ruin the Internet.  Spammers and their botnets spew out piles of mail, infect computers worldwide, sign up for free web accounts, create landing pages in free web accounts... left unfettered, eventually their use up all the bandwidth in the world.  The web will eventually become more trouble than its worth.

This leads to an interesting question for antispam companies.  Our job is to salvage the Internet and allow users to make use of the medium.  Spammers will often quip "Hey, if you don't like it, just hit delete."  This is ridiculous; if you get 50 legitimate emails per day and 500 spam messages, the amount of time you spend "just hitting delete" and separating the wheat from the chaff is excessive.  It makes the feature unusable because there is so much noise, it's like trying to watch a TV show with a lot of static (or trying to watch a movie when the jerks in front of you keep talking or texting on their cell phones).

The question naturally arises: spammers are threatening to ruin the 'net.  Should we, as antispam companies, get together and share data to combat the threat?  For you see, no one company houses all of the data.  Some are good at consumer mail, some are good at detecting bots that send spam, some are good at detecting bots that sign up for web mail accounts.  There's a lot of data out there.  By collaborating industry wide, we can figure out a way to neutralize the spam threat by pooling our collective resources.

But if we do get together and pool all of our resources, then ultimately we all end up with the same level of antispam effectiveness.  Where's the competitive edge?  How does one vendor differentiate itself from the other?  Antispam companies are in existence to make money, we're not here on an altruistic crusade.  If we were here simply for altruistic purposes, we couldn't stay in business very long or else we'd have to subsidize those activities with something else that does make money (kind of like my day job and my stock speculation).

Thus, on the one hand, there's a motivation to share data in order to combat the threat of spam.  On the other hand, collaboration has the possibility of eliminating the basic competitive edge of the industry.  So, what are we to do?

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  • This is a tough one, Terry. We genuinely feel that we are on an altruistic crusade, hence our low cost anti spam solution. However, like nurses and doctors, we need to earn a living so we can subsist and exist to persist. Capiche?

    Seriously, we're passionate about what we do. All of us. You, Al Iverson, and everybody else who keeps the debate moving and pushes the frontiers. We hate spam. We detest it. And in some ways we already do collaborate, as an industry, because we have superb comapnies like Spamhaus and Spamcop who make their data publicly available freely as well as commercially. They wouldn't offer their services for free if they too didn't believe in the eradication of spam.

    I think the bottom line here is that we should look at our industry as an emergency service. We are here fighting for the greater good and the safety of our society (in our case the Internet Community), but we need to get paid something otherwise we wouldn't even be able to ride the train into the office to get our jobs done.

  • We need a proper war on spam.  Find the spamming servers and bring them down with a barrage of DoS attacks.  If we can identify commercial companies, give them a taste of their own medicine.

    Let's get to the root of the problem and hit them where it hurts - in their bank balance.

  • I copy from page xiv of "The New School of Information Security":

    "Sharing objective data and analysis widely.  A fetish for secrecy has held us back"

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