Rising tide of spam hits University

The amount of spam targeting Yale inboxes has increased by about a third during the past two months, prompting complaints that junk mail is becoming more and more unmanageable.

Chief Information Officer Philip Long attributed the spike to rising levels of spam throughout the Internet, which he said has resulted from smarter spammers in greater numbers. But some computing assistants and mailing list administrators said the messages — some of which have been distributed via the University’s Pantheon mailing lists — are sufficiently similar to suggest that the Yale community has been specifically targeted.

Yale spam filters discarded an average of approximately 1.1 million messages per day at the beginning of June, compared to approximately 850,000 messages daily in April. Yale’s Information Technology Services cannot be sure of how much spam actually reached University mailboxes, Long said, but officials view the filters as a canary reflecting the amount of junk mail that students and staff see.

“While the data we have is what we got rid of, we certainly expect that a similar increase has occurred in what is getting through,” he said.

For every intercepted message, several pieces of junk mail bypass the filters, he said.

The changes at Yale echo trends across the Internet, as spammers are sending messages in greater volume with more creative measures to escape filters, Long said. One example is content carried in attached images rather than normal text, which eliminates an opportunity for University filters to identify spam, said Alex Johnson ’08, who works as a computing assistant.

Johnson said the similarities in the spam suggest that many of the messages may originate from the same mailing list.

“There seems to be some sort of pattern to the content,” Johnson said. “It seems that someone wrote a program to catalogue the Yale e-mail addresses.”

Some of the messages — often variants on only three or four separate e-mails — have been distributed over a number of panlists, Irving Ye ’07 said. Ye, a former president of the American Red Cross at Yale, said his organization’s mailing list was bombarded with so many spam messages that he took the list down and created a new one, but not before a number of recipients had removed their names.

“I think most students are on one or two panlists that are getting whaled on with spam,” Ye said. “We’ve lost possible blood donors and the ability to communicate in the future because they got fed up with the list, and that’s a shame.”

There is no reason to believe that the Pantheon lists themselves have been compromised, Long said. Instead, a virus probably accessed student computers containing the lists and automatically spammed them, he said.

Several students said that in addition to the usual stock tips and advertisements for bodily enlargements, many of the messages are composed of nonsensical phrases formatted in similar ways. The content was probably randomly generated by a program trying to fool University filters, Johnson said.

Not all students view the rising spam levels as a serious inconvenience. The randomly generated messages inspired Aaron Friedman ’08 to write a copycat haiku.

“They were just a few words put together that had no relation to each other, so I thought they had more place in avant-garde poetry than Internet advertising,” he said.

Comments