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Saturday, February 18, 2006 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Another anti-spam company rides to our rescue

Special to The Seattle Times

Many of us have learned to live with spam, perceiving it as part of life and something we can't change. It's like 30 years ago, when we'd scream at the TV and yearn for a way to banish the commercials. We'd go to a movie but walk in late because there was no nearby parking; wishing we could control the show times. Then we'd go to a restaurant and have our appetite ruined by a smoker at the next table.

We just lived with these little annoyances, as they represented the price of modern life's admission.

Flash forward: We moan about the inevitability of spam as we use our TiVos and home-video systems to control entertainment options. And our taste buds are a little clearer, thanks to smoke-free restaurants. Maybe the spam situation really will improve, in 30 years.

There are several companies who seek to weed out spam at the server level; in the past two weeks I've highlighted Echoworx and GoodMail. This week's solution comes from a company called Message Level (www.messagelevel.com), which ensures mail from a company really does originate from that particular source.

"When a message comes from a bank, our software sends a query to that bank asking if it really came from them," said Bill McInnis, the company's director of business development. "If there is no authentication, the message is discarded and never reaches the recipient."

All these ideas have two things in common: Presuming they work as advertised, they could clean up the neighborhood a bit and make the e-mail environment a bit safer and more enjoyable. But in order for any of them to make any difference, they must build a critical-mass user base.

Will they succeed? Don't ask me. I once predicted the three TV networks faced no threat from cable.

Message Level's greatest potential benefit is the elimination of "phishing," when a crook pretends to be a certain institution and tricks the recipient into providing a Social Security or bank account number. Message Level requires cooperation from two links of the Internet food chain. The financial institution must install the utility on its servers that authenticates its identity. And the Internet service provider must house a utility that, upon receiving mail with the bank as a sender, quickly checks that the message actually originated from that source.

Message Level sells its software to corporations on a per-message basis (each costs a fraction of a cent) while ISPs can use it free. Windows users can download a desktop utility, but there isn't enough critical mass to support that action right now.

Rather, Message Level will only work when everyone plays well together. The ISP and the company in question work out all the details, and the only thing users will need to do is notice their e-mail is actually secure.

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McInnis said that once people know that every message from a certain bank is safe and the bank knows that all messages sent are going to authorized recipients, this will open the practicality floodgates.

Personal financial matters will be safe online, and that will save everyone a lot of time; not to mention the postage. Companies won't raise their rates, as they won't need to fund anti-phishing expeditions any more.

Even so, the program can only take up so much of the slack. McInnis said that fighting unwanted e-mail requires that everyone kick in. Consumers need to report what they think is spam so ISPs can develop accurate profiles (although this won't always combat fake names). Vendors need to provide a product that ISPs want to use, and the ISPs need to give the customers what they want.

Sure, I'll do my bit. Screaming at the screen never really worked. But with all these great ideas, the problem will probably clear up even if we don't do anything at all.

If you have questions or suggestions for Charles Bermant, you can contact him by e-mail at cbermant@seattletimes.com. Type Inbox in the subject field. More columns at www.seattletimes.com/columnists.

Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company

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