The double-edged sword of spam filters

by Jul 16, 2018BlueSteam Blog0 comments

Oh, how we hate spam!  In my opinion, spam is the one evil thing that the digital era has spawned into our lives that is only there to drain the life-blood from our veins.  If we could go about our lives without receiving obscure or sinister emails and texts or telemarketing phone calls, the world would be a much happier place.

What is spam?

No, I am not referring to some canned cooked meat made by some strange branded meat processing company.  I am referring to those pesky, annoying, irritating and waste-of-time emails that end up in your inbox that you know for a fact that you did not sign-up for forcing you to double-check your sanity trying to figure out when you ticked that “I want this” checkbox.

Or those emails that force you to rummage through them to make sure that it is not something that is trying to trick you into giving your hard-earned cash over to some unsuspecting low-life criminal sitting behind a keyboard thousands of kilometres away concocting some scheme to figure out a way around your home security.

No, I am referring to the official Google definition of email spam which we know all too well:

SOURCE: Google – What is Spam?

“irrelevant or unsolicited messages sent over the Internet, typically to a large number of users, for the purposes of advertising, phishing, spreading malware, etc.”

Over 20 Years ago, spam used to be considered by all to be those emails that you would repeatedly receive over and over again that you simply did not want.  I remember, in 1997, I started taking an extra IT class, as IT was my passion and email was fast becoming the new way of communicating between people.  It was a WONDERFUL new era and I was so excited every time I would load up Outlook Express on the classroom pc to check if I had received any new emails from anyone.  Even emails received from unknown sources intrigued me and I would drink up the adrenaline rush each time I would open an unread email.  However, it wasn’t long before this novelty started wearing off and I realised that certain emails I was receiving came from sources that I simply had never engaged with.  These emails started filling up the inbox with items that had no purpose and was only existing to serve one purpose and that was to either market some nonsensical item I had no interest in whatsoever, or to force me to read some story that had no bearing in my life.

With the evolving ways of the internet, spam has grown into something far more intricate than just a marketing email or a story to read that was unrelated to our lives.  I won’t go into all the history of spam in this article but I will say that it all started around the early to mid-1990’s when the internet started enabling people and businesses to reach out and engage with their fellow peers or customers on a completely unprecedented commercial level.  This opened an entirely new world for marketers and publicists who realised the potential and power of the internet.

It was not long before email spam was everywhere you looked and impossible to avoid as companies started using it as a tool to create leads and connect with their customers whether those customers wanted it shoved in their face or not.  These new ways of advertising allowed companies to cut down on advertising costs drastically often with incredible profit margins.  While this was a great new way of advertising and reaching people, it also allowed those more sinister at heart to use this newly found platform as a way to scam the innocent and steal not only their wealth but their lives. It’s a no-brainer how it grew from there over the years to become what it is today.

What is being done to fight spam?

By the year 2000, Spam was becoming a serious problem and in April 2001, the first version of SpamAssassin was uploaded to SourceForge.net to try to fight this newly found “beast” that was quickly getting out-of-control.  

SOURCE: 2003 the fight to control spam

After the above events, spam-filter companies started emerging.  Dedicating their services to specifically weeding out unwanted or unsolicited emails offering software tools to the public to scan for emails as the email arrived in their inbox.  This proved effective at first but soon started showing its flaws as these tools required regular updates due to the spam senders doing their best to get around these new security measures that users were now putting in place.  Users started to become more and more frustrated as they would see their shiny new security tool was not working as well as they had hoped.  It wasn’t long before these companies found newer ways of fighting spam by trying to weed out the spam on the server level before the email even arrived in the user’s inbox.  New algorithms were becoming more and more advanced to fight worldwide spam.

The love and hate of having a spam filter

Today spam-filtering happens in the background without us even realising it.  We go about our day sending and receiving emails without even thinking about all the hard work that is happening at the server level to make sure that the precious emails we receive are not going to waste our time to distract us from what we need to get done.  Even though that odd spam email does arrive in our inbox, it is clear that a lot has been done and is still being done to fight spam.

The love

What bliss it is when email spam does not find its way into our lives. We go about our day, sending and receiving emails and don’t even think about the fact that spam is not arriving to steal time from our lives.  Today our lives are so busy that we don’t even consider what efforts are in place to prevent any spam from arriving in our inbox, but the moment we receive a spam email, it gets the hairs on the back of our neck standing at a ninety-degree angle.

The hate

However, every so often, as an example we find ourselves making a phone call to a client wondering why they haven’t replied to our proposal which you know you sent days ago!  You might be in the middle of an epic business deal waiting for that important confirmation from the client while unknowingly the client has waited on you all along after they did reply and decided to go with an alternative supplier as he/she did not hear back from you.  So you rush to your nearest electronic device to check your mailbox only to find that this clients email never arrived.  Upon further investigation, it turns out that the email got stuck on the server and is sitting in your spam box because of one or two words that were detected by the spam filter making it think that this email was a risk to you.  You curse and fling your keyboard out the window after realising that the deal has now fallen through all because of two silly words!  You vow that you will hunt every spam-filter company around the globe and fight them into extinction.

In conclusion

I am sure I do not have to explain to anyone how frustrating a phone call like this could be.  The above is the perfect example of how a spam filter can ruin business deals or even lives.  However, the above is not an example of the opposite.  BlueSteam often receives phone calls from clients complaining about missing emails and almost every time it is a scenario of an email that was blocked by the spam filter.  A little adjustment or tweaking of the spam filter aggression is usually all it takes to prevent it from happening again but it does not guarantee that every email will be treated the same by the spam filter.  So I find myself explaining the same scenario to each client that calls about this frustration that if we disabled the spam filter, it would be far worse and could lead to bigger problems.