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Junk mail outlives MS mortality prediction

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Two years ago today Bill Gates predicted that spam email would be eradicated as a problem within 24 months. The Microsoft chairman predicted the death of spam in a speech at the World Economic Forum on 24 January 2004.

Gates outlined a three-stage plan to eradicate spam within two years. Microsoft's scheme calls for better filters to weed out spam messages and sender authentication via a form of challenge-response system. Secondly, Microsoft wants to see to a form of tar-pitting so that emails coming from unknown senders are slowed down to a point where bulk mail runs become impractical.

Lastly, and most promisingly as far as Gates is concerned, is a digital equivalent of stamps for email, to be paid out only if the recipient considers an email to be spam. Blocking spam email would appear to be a simple problem but in practice is far trickier than Gates, or indeed the industry, first thought. In fairness, Microsoft realised this soon after Gates' speech and the firm has modified its strategy. The digital payment plan has been quietly shelved while the software giant has focused its efforts into building up a competency in email filtering, largely through acquisition, and chasing bulk mailers through the courts, where it has had a number of notable successes.

Mark Hanvey, chief security officer at Cable & Wireless, said the spam threat has changed over the last two years with the use of compromised (zombie) computers to send out spam becoming the biggest headache for service providers.

"We no longer see spam issuing from one central mailbox, instead we see viruses that hijack innocent computers and create an army of zombies sending out emails on the spammers behalf," he said.

"Today trying to flog knocked off boxes of Viagra at £5.99 a pop is passé. Instead we see criminals extorting tens of thousands of pounds out of web retailers by threatening to overwhelm their sites with a flood of spam that prevents real customers from getting through. At Cable & Wireless we've seen the scale and number of these attacks climb 50 percent over the last six months."

The US remains the leading source of spam messages, according to a Q4 2005 survey by security firm Sophos published this week. Although the US continues to head up Sophos's chart of spam-sending nations there have been significant reductions, and for the first time the US accounts for less than a quarter (24.5 per cent) of all spam relayed.

China (22.3 per cent), South Korea (9.7 per cent), France (5.0 per cent) and Canada (3.0 per cent) make up the remainder of Sophos's top 5. The UK, responsible for relaying a relatively modest 1.6 per cent of spam, has slipped out of Sophos's top 10, and is currently in 14th position. ®

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