IBM debuts spam assailant tool

Rather than just filtering content, Big Blue's spam-fighting technology verifies sender identity and strikes back.

Matt Hines Staff Writer, CNET News.com
Matt Hines
covers business software, with a particular focus on enterprise applications.
Matt Hines
3 min read
IBM has developed a new spam weapon--e-mail sorting technology that analyzes domain identity and then works to slow down computers responsible for sending unwanted messages.

Unveiled Tuesday, the antispam technology is meant to take an aggressive swing at computers being used to deliver large volumes of unsolicited e-mail. After identifying a certain machine as an established source of spam, the software, dubbed FairUCE, bounces back any messages sent by the device in question with the intent of slowing that computer down and retarding its ability to produce more unwanted e-mail.

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In theory, the more spam a system targeted by FairUCE generates, the more traffic it will have redirected back at itself. IBM is making the software available for free download on its Web site.

According to IBM's research, 76 percent of all e-mail sent during February was spam, and one out of every 46 e-mail messages was blocked for carrying a virus or some other malicious content. Despite the high numbers, those figures actually represent a slowdown in the volume of spam from January, according to Big Blue. The company says that in January more than 83 percent of all e-mail messages were unwanted.

IBM said the filtering technology at the heart of FairUCE uses identity management tools on the network level to establish the legitimacy of an e-mail message by tracing it back to its source. After tracing a computer's IP address, the system creates a profile of the machine that is consistently sending out spam and begins redirecting the messages back to the device, thereby slowing its performance.

Marc Goubert, manager of IBM's AlphaWorks, the online community through which IBM forwards emerging technologies such as FairUCE to developers and other interested parties, said the intention was not as much to punish spammers as it was to help people fight spam.

"The idea of this technology is to relieve the recipient from receiving the spam," Goubert said. "It may be a more forceful approach, but it doesn't create a lot more network traffic, and we don't want to interfere with other traffic or e-mail coming in. We're not trying to attack spammers; we're just trying to clean up your in-box."

Drawing fire
Previous attempts to strike back directly at computers that generate spam, or the Web sites advertised in spam messages, have drawn criticism from Internet watchdogs. The major concern over such aggressive antispam tools has been that the technologies might imperil legitimate businesses that use e-mail to communicate with customers.

In one case, an antispam screensaver launched by Web portal Lycos Europe drew condemnation from industry watchers, including antivirus software makers, for an onboard technology that bombarded Web sites that were promoted in the text of unsolicited e-mails. Lycos Europe took the free product off the market after receiving heavy criticism that the "Make Love Not Spam" screensaver could actually launch denial-of-service attacks on innocent Web servers and assertions that the tool had shut down two Chinese sites.

IBM's Goubert believes that businesses will embrace the FairUCE tools, rather than decry them for ethical reasons.

"Spam is such a huge problem," he said. "I don't think people are opposed to this sort of aggressive approach; in fact, they're asking for it."

IBM and Lycos Europe are hardly the only companies trying out direct attacks on spammers. In January, security technology specialist Symantec released its Mail Security 8100 Series device, which is designed to help stem spam at the network level. Labeled by the company as e-mail "traffic-shaping" technology, the appliance is meant to automatically control the flow of e-mail messages based on a sender's behavior and on a profile generated by its Sender Reputation authentication service. The device aims to identify abusive e-mailers and prevent them from sending spam into protected networks.

One industry analyst lauded IBM's effort to help curb spam. Judith Hurwitz, president of Hurwitz Group, said the benefits of FairUCE will likely outweigh any complaints over the technology's impact on online businesses or Web traffic.

"Spam has become such a threat to business that you've got people setting filters so high that in some cases it's hard to communicate," Hurwitz said. "It really does hurt people's ability to do their jobs, so it's important to take an aggressive stance, and I don't think you'll see a lot of controversy over this technology."