Sadanand: My life according to the Yale spam filter

My Yale junk mail folder has become a black hole, and I suspect I’m not the only one with this problem.

A few months ago, I received a few E-vites to parties. Or I would have, had the Evites been delivered to my inbox. Instead I was left to find out about these parties via — gasp — old-fashioned regular email or from a conversation with the party host, trying to figure out why nobody was RSVPing. The way I see it, there are only two possible conclusions from this: the universe wants me to be a hermit or the spam filter is highly confused.

At the beginning of this semester, ITS switched to a new spam filter from Cloudmark in order to screen outgoing messages. As far as I know, this filter is not affecting the delivery of incoming messages; and in any case, the problems I and others have had with E-vites started last semester, before the new system was put in place.

In an article by the News about the switch published Jan. 26, the ITS director was quoted as saying “Yale throws away about a million pieces of e-mail every day before it ever gets to your computer.” I can understand “invite” serving as a trigger word for message blocking; there are certainly many sketchy emails that include the word “invite” in the subject line. And yet emails from Punchbowl, another party invitation website, still arrive safely in my inbox. The whole thing was perplexing.

Not feeling particularly attached to Evite and recognizing that people still wanted me to attend their parties, I let go of my annoyance with the spam filter. It couldn’t help it. Then last month my dad mentioned sending me some emails — emails that were nowhere to be found in my inbox. Having received emails from my dad for years, this struck me as quite strange. Messages from friends with Yale e-mail addresses were also missing. The spam filter had struck again!

For the record — I do understand and appreciate the need for the spam filter. Phishing emails are on the rise and becoming more insidious. I do, however, have a problem with spam filters that both reject important messages from genuine e-mail addresses — particularly addresses that I’ve received messages from before — and continue to allow messages from senders such as “archetype clothing” into my inbox, even when I’ve labeled the sender as junk mail, oh, I don’t know, about a million times.

I suppose I should be grateful — at least I have a junk mail folder and can excavate lost messages. Friends who use Webmail (public service announcement: avoid Webmail and use Outlook, Thunderbird or Mail Client. It will change your life) have often been unable to recover important messages. These emails end up in some purgatory between the junk mail folder and the inbox, which is an even worse fate than simply being unjustly routed to the junk mail folder.

But blocking messages entirely seems unhelpful and potentially disruptive. After all, losing an Evite is one thing, but losing a work-related email is far more serious.

Clearly, the spam filter is not perfect. It would be safer for ITS to allow all messages to go through, even those tagged as spam, allowing us to discriminate those messages from legitimate senders (i.e., my dad) from weird ones (i.e., WEBMAIL ADMINISTRATOR). But for this to work, we also have to hold up our end of the bargain and not click links within suspicious emails enabling our computers to become “spam-bots.” This is generally a matter of common sense; the vast majority of emails in my spam folder look absurd. There are always a few spam emails that seem legitimate based on subject line and/or sender name, but a glance at the e-mail address is generally a good way of identifying these messages as spam.

Spam filtration will always be an imperfect system; phishers apparently have a lot of time to kill and can always invent ways around filters. It works best when it works for us and lately, spam filters haven’t seemed up to task. However, I have faith that the spam filter and I can improve our relationship. Our differences are certainly not irreconcilable and I do appreciate that I no longer receive requests for money from Nigerian princes. Just stop policing my social life, Yale spam filter, and we’ll be all good!

Saheli Sadanand is a fourth-year graduate student in the Department of Immunobiology.

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