Are Botnets Beating Us in the War on Spam?
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They’re calling it Spam 2.0: a huge wave of unsolicited bulk email whose senders use sophisticated techniques to get around spam filters. Some spam fighters look at the botnet-generated flood and say we’re losing the war on spam. Why are we getting so much more spam now, and is there a way to stem the tide?
The numbers are almost indisputable. According to Postini, an online message management company, spam volume has risen 73 percent in the last three months. For the year, the quantity of spam is up 143 percent. Other studies have noted that spam accounts for as many as nine out of every ten emails sent.
The story gets worse though. Spammers are embedding their text-based messages in images, which spam filters can’t read well enough to block. This is called “image spam,” and you can read more about its increase in recent months in another article on this site. Images take up several times as much space as text, so the rise in image spam means that more bandwidth is being consumed by spam, overloading networks and aggravating users.
It’s not just the rise in the number of messages or their size that is alarming. At least one anti-spam expert thinks that the volume of spam that is being sent hasn’t increased as much as it appears; it’s the efficiency in getting past the filters that has increased. As Windows expert Brian Livingston put it in his blog, “That’s actually a much scarier fact than the headlines have made clear.”
Livingston goes on to quote Richi Jennings, an analyst for Ferris Research, as saying that his company noted a 20 percent increase in spam in the fourth quarter of 2006 – much lower than the 73 percent noted by Postini. But here’s the kicker: the amount of spam that got past the filters increased 100 percent. In other words, spammers became twice as efficient as getting their messages through.
How could this happen? Botnets carry much of the blame. These kinds of networks have been around for years. They usually involve a hacker sending out malicious emails that carry an infectious payload. When a victim’s computer is infected with the code, a hacker can take control of the computer and basically do whatever he wants with it. These “zombie” machines have been used in distributed denial-of-service attacks in the past. These days, though, they have become far more sophisticated, and are used to achieve different goals.
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