Terry Zink: Security Talk

Discussing Internet security in (mostly) plain English

Spammers ruining it for everyone

Spammers ruining it for everyone

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Last week we had an incident with our outbound reputation that caused delivery issues to various US government agencies who don’t use our service.  One of our customers did something inadvertently that caused our outbound IP reputation to degrade with some 3rd party reputation lists and as a result these government agencies wouldn’t accept our mail.  It was painful to fix (outbound IP reputation issues are the most difficult issues to resolve; I’d classify them as 4x as difficult as inbound problems in terms of the time it takes to repair everything and sort it all out).

In this case, we couldn’t deliver to these government agencies because they had their own spam filter settings on fairly aggressively.  If they would have relaxed them a bit they could have received their (i.e., our) mail.

But here’s the thing – why do they even have these settings so aggressive to begin with?  It’s because of spammers!  Because some people (e.g., governments, some large corporations) are sensitive to spam, they ratchet up their settings on their spam filters to be more aggressive.  But since they are more aggressive, they end up missing a lot of legitimate mail.  However, they wouldn’t need to be aggressive – and therefore miss all of this legitimate mail – if they didn’t feel it was necessary.  Off-the-shelf settings are not strict enough and they are willing to trade off false negatives (missed spam) for false positives.

It’s because of spammers that we have outbound delivery problems.  They make our lives problematic on the inbound side, but they really cause us pain on the outbound side.  They have made mail delivery more difficult for everyone, good and bad senders alike.  They are the reason why newsletters say “Please add us to your safe senders list!” 

Not only that, but phishers transmitting advanced persistent threats have also caused various organizations to become more sensitive and use a filter-first-ask-questions-later approach.  But as they force others to up the ante, the result is that much of the rest of the world who are just trying to get along in the world have problems delivering mail.  And it’s all because of spam.

Thanks, spammers.  We owe you one.

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  • The moral of the story here is that your customers should not be able to do something that causes your outbound IP reputation to degrade.  Otherwise your reputation is being held hostage to their good behaviour.

    Hopefully the aggressive government settings will prompt you to get better customers, better settings, or both.  And then there'll be fewer spammers in the world.

  • Over on his blog, a fellow antispam fighter disagrees with my comments in this post.  You can check it out here:

    fanf.livejournal.com/121694.html

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