No easy solution to spam woes

Eric Fischer MUS ’11, captain of the Yale cycling team, opened his e-mail Monday and found a flood spam.

Information Technology Services shut down the cycling team’s panlist for the next four days, and the group ultimately switched from its Yale panlist to a more secure Mailman list. Mailman, which allows administrators to restrict who can e-mail a group, is currently the only alternative to the traditional, spam-prone panlists, but as the volume of junk mail increases, ITS is thinking about others, said Manager of the Student Technology Collaborative Loriann Higashi.

“The spam’s really rammed up,” Fischer said. “I think [the Mailman list] will definitely stop the spam a little.”

Mailman lists, which were introduced in 2003, are difficult to use and take more administrative work than panlists. Though they deter some spammers, they by no means dam the river of unwanted e-mail.

Higashi said ITS is hoping to decommission the panlist system eventually, but to do so would be “complicated” because so many people use it. Mailman is a possible replacement but is difficult to use because it has so many settings, she said, adding that ITS could also find a similar, simpler open source product.

Still, Higashi said she thinks Yale students should make the switch to Mailman, especially because ITS is available to help them with the more complex server.

“We’re trying to provide a system to let people do what they want to do,” she said. “At some point, we might decide to decommission [panlists] because the usefulness is outweighed. Right now, I think there’s still a lot of panlists that are available and used appropriately.”

ITS is always trying to find the “right tipping point” between safeguarding against spam attacks and allowing community members easy access to their panlists, said Chuck Powell, senior director for academic media and technology.

Students can use a number of different options when they configure their mailman lists, Higashi said, but changing the settings on mailman is complicated. Mailman has 10 pages of configuration options, she said, and most people find panlists easier to operate.

“[Mailman]’s a little overwhelming when you first create a list,” Higashi said. “Most people still choose to do a panlist just because they’re much simpler.”

But panlists are more susceptible to spam. An e-mail went out to 36 Yale panlists and one non-Yale panlist Monday titled “Vitas for Spring Fling,” advocating for the Russian artist Vitaliy “Vitalik” Vladasovich Grachyov, or “Vitas.” Higashi and Powell said spamming is easy, and ITS has no effective way to stop it.

The “Vitas” e-mail sparked a spam chain that involved everything from a missing Chinese textbook to a Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity member promoting his party. Many recipients of these e-mails found them irrelevant and annoying, as Mark Anthony Gregorio — not a Yale student — said when he e-mailed the thread begging to be removed from the list.

People can avoid this kind of explosive spam by BCCing addresses, Higashi said, but this also means recipients often do not know where the e-mail is coming from or why they are being associated with a certain recipient group.

“Mailman is a little more modern and more functional,” Powell said. “But it too can be abused in some ways.”

While he said the mailman service requires spammers to jump through a few more hoops, these steps are “trivial” and will not prevent “determined” junk mailers.

Meanwhile, finding an alternative is not a straightforward task. For one thing, ITS would want to route an outside web application through Yale’s Central Authentication Service.

Though aggravating and intrusive, spam can have its uses. The “Vitas” mailer, for one, said in a Thursday interview — in which he modified his voice to conceal his identity — that he did not see anything wrong with spamming community e-mails.

“I am spreading great music,” the “Vitas” promoter said. “I do not know why they would be mad.”

Thirty-eight student groups currently use Mailman.

Comments

  • yaylie

    We should put on Vitas for Spring Fling.