Sender ID's fading message

Lack of popularity of Microsoft's antispam technology could make it harder to reverse consumers' eroding faith in e-mail.

At the start of last year, Bill Gates told the world's elite at an annual conference in Davos, Switzerland, that the problem of spam would be solved in two years.

But if the Microsoft chairman was betting on Sender ID to play a major role in achieving that goal , it looks like a losing bet.

The Microsoft-backed protocol to identify e-mail senders aims to stem spam and phishing by making it harder for senders to forge their addresses and by improving filtering. So far, though, there's been a lack of adoption by legitimate businesses. Instead, it's been proving popular with a group it's meant to deter--spammers.

News.context

What's new:
Sender ID aims to stem the tide of spam and phishing, but the protocol has not enjoyed widespread, legitimate adoption.

Bottom line:
If legitimate businesses don't adopt Sender ID or similar technologies, e-mail confidence could continue to fall, undermining e-mail's usefulness.

More stories on Sender ID.

That could spell trouble. Confidence in e-mail is falling, as its abuse for online scams is growing. If legitimate businesses don't sign up for Sender ID or similar technologies, that trend could continue and undermine e-mail's usefulness.

"There is an identity crisis for e-mail right now," said Samantha McManus, a business strategy manager at Microsoft. "The e-mail infrastructure was built in a different era, when you actually knew who was sending you e-mail and you did not have to worry."

Phishing uses spam e-mail with a forged sender name and a link to a fraudulent Web site in an attempt to trick the victim into giving up sensitive personal information such as passwords. That fraud scheme and other cyberthreats are taking a toll on consumer confidence that will inhibit e-commerce growth in the United States by up to 3 percent in the next three years, Gartner predicted in June. In the same survey , the research firm found that more than 80 percent of online consumers in the United States distrust e-mails from individuals or consumers they don't know.

Basically, Sender ID checks whether an e-mail that claims to come from a certain Internet domain (such as "customerservice@anybank.com") really originates from the e-mail servers associated with that domain ("anybank.com"). The system uses the Domain Name System, or DNS, to make that determination. Sender Policy Framework (SPF), which merged with Microsoft's Caller ID for E-mail Technology to become Sender ID, also uses the same approach.

E-mail ID cheat sheet
Sender ID isn't the only technology out to clean up e-mail by identifying the source. Here's a rundown of the pack.

Sender ID
Brings together two previous security technologies: Caller ID for E-mail, introduced by Microsoft in February 2004, and SPF, developed by Meng Wong. In early stages of standards process at IETF, which had previously dropped a working group on Sender ID.

SPF
Short for Sender Policy Framework. Technology merged into Sender ID spec. Other versions exist, and is planned to be integrated into other e-mail security technologies, such as IBM's FairUCE.

DKIM
Merges Yahoo's DomainKeys with Cisco's Internet Identified Mail. DKIM, or DomainKeys Identified Mail, relies on public key cryptography. It attaches a digital signature to outgoing e-mail so that recipients can verify that the message comes from its claimed source.

FairUCE
An IBM project that uses DNS, like SPF and Sender ID. A future version will incorporate SPF or similar sender identification systems.

If adopted widely, an e-mail authentication technology like Sender ID could help people make sure that a message that claims to be from their bank actually was sent by the bank. Authentication alone does not stop junk and spoofed messages, but it can make spam filters more effective, by allowing filters to rate domains based on the e-mail that is sent, for example.

But the use of authentication technology requires a major change in the e-mail infrastructure. Any organization that maintains an e-mail server--that includes companies, schools, Internet service providers and others--has to publish SPF or Sender ID records, or both, to identify their mail servers.

That wide-ranging shake-up is just what the e-mail infrastructure needs, said Meng Wong, the chief technology officer for special projects at e-mail forwarding company POBox.com and a developer of the original SPF specification.

"E-mail is broken," he said. "We will need some shocks to the system to fix it. There is a certain tolerance for breaking things a bit more, as long as you get it fixed. Kind of like when somebody's shoulder is dislocated, you know it is going to hurt when you put it back, but at least it is temporary."

So far, Sender ID and related technologies have not delivered on their promise. There is a lack of adoption by legitimate e-mail senders. Spammers have adopted Sender ID and its predecessor SPF, but without adoption by a critical mass of legitimate e-mail senders, the technology will fail, experts said. With that failure, one shot at fixing e-mail could be lost.

What's involved?
Microsoft argues that publishing SPF or Sender ID records is simple for those organizations that want to do it. It usually does not require new hardware or software. The most arduous part is doing an inventory of mail servers and the subsequent maintenance of that record, Microsoft's McManus said.

Doing that inventory and doing it right are where people run into trouble. Large organizations often have complex e-mail systems that are managed by many people in different geographic locations, according to Gartner. Also, parts of the company's e-mail or DNS infrastructure may be outsourced, making the task more complex. At the other end of the scale, many smaller companies don't have the expertise to publish information on their e-mail servers in their DNS record, Gartner said.

Also complicating matters are the multiple specifications that

 

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