Mason E-mail System to Get Spam Filter Upgrade

Posted: December 8, 2006 at 1:00 am, Last Updated: November 30, -0001 at 12:00 am

By Dave Andrews and Amy Brener

On Sunday, Dec. 10, Mason’s Information Technology Unit (ITU) will be upgrading the software that filters e-mail messages identified as spam or containing viruses.

Spammers have begun embedding messages into images to bypass filtering systems. The soon-to-be-installed version of the software has the ability to read these images.

“We’re at a point where spam is making e-mail unusable and people are losing confidence in the e-mail system,” says Joy Hughes, Mason CIO and vice president of information technology. “This is going to be a worthwhile upgrade. After the many tests we’ve done, we are confident it will stop more spam.”

The school’s system currently stops about 80 percent of spam-identified mail before it gets to the user’s inbox. According to Postini, a U.S. e-mail security company, the number of spam messages sent in the United States has tripled since June, accounting for nearly 9 out of every 10 e-mails.

The number of messages being tagged as spam has increased at an alarming rate, especially within the last two months. Walt Sevon, deputy CIO and executive director of ITU, reports that in September 2006, approximately 29 million e-mails were tagged as spam. That number jumped to more than 53 million in November.

After seeing figures like these, Ron Secrest, director of enterprise servers and messaging at George Mason, hopes to see the university’s identification of spam percentage rise closer to 90 percent.

“Of course, there’s no way to catch all of [the spam],” says Secrest, “but the new upgrade will definitely improve the current system. Now it will know what to do with the image spaces that previously got through.”

According to Computerworld Magazine, spam filters traditionally look at the words contained in e-mail messages to determine their legitimacy. If words are embedded in images, the filter does not recognize the enclosed text.

Spam filtering programs have added optical character recognition (OCR) technology, enabling them to read the embedded text. However, spammers continue to create new techniques to evade such security measures by adding or subtracting pixels in the image to make each message look unique and therefore legitimate, and also by adding colored pixels to create “image noise.”

The new version of the spam filtering software will have a look and feel similar to the old one. One major change is that it will now be branded SonicWall E-mail Security, rather than Mail Frontier. No changes to user settings, preferences or software will be required.

Once the upgrade is installed, Mason mail users can further configure how the software is applied to their personal inboxes by logging into to customize the controls.

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