A Call for a Spam Summit for Higher Education

Spam is killing the "killer app," e-mail being the one acknowledged "killer app" of the Internet. We've all come to rely on e-mail communications in our professional and private lives. Not too long ago, although it's beginning to seem like a different world already, those of us with quick fingers and good hand-eye coordination were lecturing everyone else: "Just use the delete key. What's the big deal?"

Now there is no one unaffected. Overnight, last night, I received 334 e-mail messages and the majority were spam, the "Keep-Your-Septic-Tank-Running-Like-Brand-New" type of spam … and there were plenty of the sordid, source-of-embarrassment types, as well. Worse, it only takes a little bit of research to reveal an IT world full of solutions that may be worse than the problem. (Read on for some examples.)

Even though we still can have a sense of humor about spam, I think it's time for higher education to have a Spam Summit. Time to get our brightest minds together—just like we are doing for cybersecurity—to define the issues unique to higher education, and put our institutions' research and programming abilities to work!

Research and learning is all about communication. We communicate with potential students and their parents, with students, with alumni, between and among staff and faculty. We e-mail for learning and we also manage through e-mail. We collaborate on research and we communicate findings via e-mail. We've been at the forefront of e-mail use for decades. But, until recently, ".edu" e-mail addresses seemed to be spared the bulk of the spammers' attention. No more.

I sent my first e-mail message in the early 1970s. I didn't know it was e-mail, or really understand what I was doing, but I was lucky enough to be in the right place at the right time. No one at the time knew how important e-mail would become. I could quote statistics but instead I'll just ask you to read this sentence, then close your eyes for 30 seconds and imagine carrying it out: Turn off your e-mail client for the next week and carry on with all of your diverse communication threads via only the telephone, postal mail, or face-to-face conversations.

Okay, that makes the point. We're stuck with e-mail, and right now that means for many of us, tons of spam. As IT managers, we not only have to deal with users' functionality that is e-mail-specific, we have to worry about legal obligations being adjudicated and legislated. You know those pornographic spam messages, where you actually see the obscene material before you can delete them? Well, in the very near future, if not now, any person on your faculty or staff who considers themselves to be particularly sensitive to the material, or offended by it, might be able to either make you ensure they receive no more of it or turn off your e-mail system. So, soon, whether we like the solutions or not, we're going to have to impose them.

Services that detect mass e-mails of all kinds run the risk of rejecting messages that subscribers want. My employer has one of the longest-running e-mail newsletters on the Internet—it's been transmitting since 1987. But, like many other good things, its existence may be threatened—not by spam, but by counter-spam procedures. Rejections by mail servers of our 10,000+ subscribers have been increasing monthly.

If you're like me, filtering e-mail into folders d'esn't work because of that "out of sight, out of mind" thing. Plus, trusting a commercial organization to filter for you sounds like it has potential, but every time I read about someone testing such program's abilities, the report is dismal. I tried using my e-mail client's filtering capabilities to trash spam, dutifully adding character strings from Subject lines and From lines, and I know that it's catching a lot—but there are even more it is not catching. And how dysfunctional is it to have to check a junk e-mail folder regularly, to see what you have missed?

Legal solutions, legislated or adjudicated, are likely to be worse. Will officials and judges understand (or approve of) the unique character of higher education institutions, even private ones, when passing bills that would require "[ADV]" at the beginning of the Subject line of a "commercial" message? Can you imagine the success of any e-mail campaign for new students, or among your alumni, in which messages arrived so-labeled. Yeah.

I don't know the answer, and since I don't have a product, I can admit that I don't know the answer. But I do know where I look when I want something studied and researched—and where I have seen substantial success in the past decades in collaborative, sharing software solutions, especially using open source … I look to higher education.

Let's have the first Spam Summit for Higher Education (SSHE)! I look to higher education to solve this problem for itself—and maybe, in the process, for everyone. Let's bring together IT managers, programmers, CIOs, communicators, researchers, and take a look at the problem with fresh eyes—with an attitude that we can focus higher education's resources on it and solve this problem. Any takers?

Thanks to Dave Dillard of Temple University for his contributions to this piece.

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