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Microsoft attacks spam at source

The company is set to launch an spam-fighting offensive in the Asia-Pacific region, where intelligence indicates a high percentage of unsolicited e-mail originates.

Microsoft is taking its antispam fight to the Asia-Pacific.

As part of its current global campaign against unsolicited commercial e-mail, or spam, the software giant says it will use better filtering, legal action and education on information technology security. It says it will also offer help to Asian authorities in drawing up antispam laws.

According to reports, a high percentage of the world's spam comes from Asia, from countries with relatively less-developed antispam laws such as China, Korea and Taiwan. Weak security, such as mail servers with relays left open for exploitation by spammers, has also been blamed for the flood of junk mail from the region.

"Spam is fast becoming one of the most serious problems facing e-mail users, accounting for more than 50 percent of all e-mail traffic," said Peter Moore, Microsoft's chief technology officer in Asia.

The upcoming releases of the next-generation MSN, Microsoft Exchange and the Outlook messaging and collaboration client in Office 2003 will include filters to detect spam and verify whether the senders of messages are who they say they are, said Moore.

MSN already blocks 2.4 billion pieces of spam each day to users of its Hotmail Web-based e-mail, according to Microsoft. Increasingly, Internet services like MSN are increasingly touting antispam features to differentiate their products from those of rivals.

The Redmond, Wash., company has a list-creation deterrent called Human Interactive Proof (HIP), which is designed to reduce the growth of machine-created MSN e-mail accounts that are used to distribute spam. HIP has cut e-mail registrations by 20 per cent, he said.

Other Internet service providers, including Yahoo, offer similar "Web beacon" image-blocking and HIP antispam features.

The upcoming Exchange Server 2003 provides connection filtering based on support for real-time blacklists (RBL). Image blocking in Outlook Web Access (OWA) prevents, by default, the download of image-based Web beacons that verify addresses for spammers.

In addition, users can save Outlook 2003 and Outlook Web Access (OWA) "safe" and "block" sender lists on the Exchange server, stopping spam before it gets to the client in-box. Outlook Web Access also supports Web-beacon blocking.

Microsoft is also providing antispam firms with a tool that helps build more sophisticated filters within Exchange 2003, said Moore.

The new tool will allow incoming e-mail to be scanned and attached with a numeric score, or Spam Confidence Level (SCL). Based on a threshold set by an administrator, the message will be forwarded to either the recipient's in-box or to a junk mail folder.

"While we've added new antispam technologies to our arsenal, it's important to note that technical solutions are only one part of a comprehensive antispam effort," said Moore.

The software giant plans to work with government departments and business groups across Asia to run technical training for businesses that's focused on how to secure computer systems against spammers. Plans to launch the program have been announced for both Hong Kong and Korea.

On the legal front, the company has filed 15 lawsuits in the United States and the United Kingdom against alleged spammers. Lawsuits against spammers in China and Korea--two major global spam sources--are expected to be trickier to execute because of the relatively less-developed legal framework against spam in these countries. Microsoft hopes to work with Asian authorities in tightening their antispam laws.

By one estimate, some 6.7 million spam mailings were sent in March 2003, double the number the previous year. By another estimate, spam now accounts for some 45 percent of all e-mail.

CNETAsia staff reported from Singapore. CNET's Evan Hansen contributed to this report.