Stopping Spam

reviewed by Bob Bruen

by Alan Schwartz and Simson Garfinkel. O'Reilly & Associates 1998. 190 pages. Index. Two appendices. $19.95.

Whether you like or dislike unwanted, large volume, sales oriented email, you still have to deal with it. I have always believed it was prudent to understand things even if, or perhaps especially if, I did not like them. Here is a short, easy to read, useful book on understanding and combating spam. The requisite history lesson is present, but it is covered in interesting detail because the legal trail is interesting. Spam has grown in parallel with the net. As the net reached more people, more spammers tried to reach out, but more than that, spammers have become more technically sophisticated over time. As legal remedies have increased in effectiveness to the point that censorship seems to the weapon of choice, spammers work harder to avoid being caught by using the technology.

In spite of the brevity of this book, one finds lots of help to fight off spammers by looking at the technology, as well as the through the use of the technical community. Very often ISPs will be quite happy to shut off spammers because of community pressure and because spammers burn up scarce resources. The authors provide a boatload of suggestions to combat the problem which boil down to just a few principals. They also teach quite a bit about how email works that the average user would not think about. For example, there is a simplified introduction to protocols that is well done. The background for cancelmoose was a fun bit of reading as part of the explanation of message canceling.

Make no mistake about the position of the authors (spam must die), however if you are thinking about becoming a spammer you might want to read it as well. You will learn how it's done, how people fight it and why people fight it. Perhaps you might change your mind.

There are eight chapters. The first four describe spam, its history and the net. The next four are how to chapters for users and sysadmins, which I recommend even if you think you know how to administer an email system. The technical suggestions are worth looking at just in case you might have have missed something along the way.

Among the goodies are suggestions for policy making and polite form letters to send to spammers and ISPs. There are many pointers to resources and many practical steps that you can try as you read the book. This book is a good deal for twenty bucks, while making the net a more pleasant place to live.