CofC and The Citadel struggle with crippling amounts of junk e-mail 

The Days of Spam-a-lot

"No doubt hotties adore huge trouser snakes," states the title of a recent spam email for a product called Megadik. "If you still cannot boast of having a big one, this wonderful preparation will quickly improve it."

From male enhancement to get-rich-quick schemes, the volume of spam crossing through cyberspace has increased dramatically in recent months, and two of Charleston's major universities are straining to keep their student e-mail servers sufficiently operating. The Citadel now receives upwards of 900,000 e-mails a day, only 25,000 of which are valid, while the College of Charleston has doubled their e-mail volume to two million in a few short months.

"It was a matter of weeks ago that we saw this sudden spike in spam e-mails," says Citadel Director of Information Technology Richard Nelson. "It overwhelms the spam blocker. The spam is being stopped, but there's a high cost — it's taking a longer time to filter the mail, and people are complaining that they're not getting messages until two or three hours after they're sent."

Nelson claims that most of the spam has pitched a product, rather than "phishing" schemes designed to steal personal information. The Citadel has pinpointed the source of a majority of their spam — Eastern Europe and South America.

Blocking spam is a delicate balance between preventing junk messages from reaching a person's inbox and at the same time not filtering out legitimate e-mails. The College of Charleston uses a blocking system called Sonic Wall. The school purchased Sonic Wall in 2006 when they were receiving approximately 300,000 messages a day. Under the stress of six to seven times that number, they've been hearing complaints from students frustrated with the flood of junk reaching their inbox.

"Checking my e-mail is completely impossible without the mind-numbing and tedious exercise of reading and deleting 100 junk e-mails surrounding the one that tells me my class is cancelled at four," says Andrew Lassiter, a graduate student at the CofC. "I get the same messages and subjects over and over again in the same hour — become a firefighter, be a policeman, rock her world, date local singles. The filtering system must be an outdated piece of junk if it can't pick up these duplicate junk mails."

CofC E-mail and Communications Developer Analyst John Schroeder says they're "pretty much exceeding" the number of e-mails Sonic Wall was designed for. However, he says that the school has recently added two new servers to handle the message increase and they're successfully catching over 90 percent of spam e-mails before they reach students.

But the volume of spam seems to be affecting the general functionality of the school's WebMail interface. After last fall's bomb scare, students complained that the updates sent throughout the day by the college weren't reaching them, the one method of communication counted on to spread information during a crisis. Generally speaking, attachments over 2 MB block up Webmail, a problem for any student who needs to send high quality image or sound files.

"We're concerned about it," says Schroeder. "Certainly, people's ability to move a file from one place to another is something we want to be able to do well."

The Gmail Factor

"Why are we spending so much money trying to keep a failing WebMail service up and running?" asks CofC Student Government Association Vice President Seaton Brown. "The students are just fed up with it."

Brown has proposed that the CofC outsource their e-mail service to Gmail or Microsoft, both of which offer free hosting, with a minimal charge for the upkeep of servers. One hold-up appears to be the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act, which could prevent universities from providing a private company with the names of students. Clemson University is currently undergoing a switch to Gmail. Brown sees the move as a precedent being set.

CofC's Schroeder says the school will be very cautious about entering into any kind of contract with a third party. "Just because Clemson does something doesn't mean it's the right thing for the College of Charleston to do," he says. "The best we can do is allocate more money to replace what we've got with the best technology, and with any luck we'll be able to make some progress. The vendor we're working with right now (Sonic Wall) is working very hard to keep their filtering process up-to-date."

But isn't Gmail free? "I would say that one of the big reasons for switching would be to eventually reduce expenses," responds Schroeder. The primary problem with converting student e-mail, he explains, is the time and expense during the migration. The first step would be a trial run on a few accounts, says Schroeder, and a gradual conversion, possibly by class, beginning at the start of a fall semester (but not necessarily 2008).

The SGA's Brown says the change can't come soon enough. "It's clearly a human resource problem, that we don't have enough people in the IT department, so why not outsource it?" he asks. "The three years I've dealt with this is too long, and the one year the current freshmen have dealt with it is too long. We're going to push as hard as we can to get a new system by next semester."

At The Citadel, IT Director Nelson acknowledges that outsourcing e-mail will happen, but there's no set timetable. "There's the technical issue of how to keep the same address, transferring messages, and whether or not to outsource faculty and staff e-mails as well," he says. "But I think this is a general trend among colleges and universities. E-mail is a commodity that colleges are having to spend more and more money on, and we'd rather be spending it on teaching and learning. Why not push that commoditized thing out to someone who has a greater capacity, especially when it's free?"

Spam's Roots

Although the U.S. leads the world in the creation and proliferation of spam, the weekly list of "worst spammers" at Spamhaus.org typically reads like a who's who of the Russian mob, with names like Leo "BadCow" Kuvayev and "Alex Blood" topping this week's top perps. Pinpointing spam's origins at the receiving end is difficult though, and CofC's Schroeder doesn't see litigation as a feasible approach to attacking the problem.

"I think that spammers should be spread naked on anthills and covered with honey," he says. "It's originated through organized crime and has a ridiculously high return in terms of profit because you only need a fraction of a percentage on a return to make money in a spam blast."

Part of the frustration IT professionals face is the inability of law enforcement to stop spammers, and the speed with which expensive spam blockers become obsolete. When MUSC purchased new spam software last year, they first consulted CofC about their program and decided that Sonic Wall wasn't sufficient for their needs. The Medical University receives nearly four million messages a day and blocks about 96 percent, with a minimal amount of spam reaching students. But blocking e-mails at that volume takes money, and for schools without that budget, free services like Gmail may be a viable option.

Until that occurs, The Citadel's Nelson recommends that students guard their e-mail address when using social networking sites like Facebook. That's unless you actually enjoy the daily offers that promise, "Your little soldier will grow up to a big love general."


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