Canadian schools put spam under quarantine

Educational institutions in Canada that are being bombarded with spam are installing stop signs and traffic lights in the form of spam filters to re-route undesirable e-mail away from the user’s inbox.

Vancouver Community College,

for instance, was receiving anywhere from 4,000 to 5,000 e-mail messages per day, with about 50 to 60 per cent of those messages being spam. Much of the unsolicited e-mail was objectionable material, forcing the school administration to ask the information technology department to get rid of the undesirable e-mail for the college’s 1,000 e-mail users. That solution was a product called PureMessage, made by Vancouver-based ActiveState.

Using pattern-matching algorithms, PureMessage assigns a probability percentage to an e-mail message to determine if it is spam. Those messages that are determined to be junk e-mail get quarantined, examined by the educational institution’s IT department, and then released to the end users on a daily basis. Users can then request any messages they may want to see from the mail administrator. The program typically is about $8,000 per CPU licence, and ActiveState offers discounts to educational clients. Its Canadian customer base, apart from educational institutions, includes CIBC, Nettwerk Records, and WestJet.

“Many of the e-mail addresses of staff at the college are in clear text on our web site,” explained Michael Bayrock, Manager of Application Services at Vancouver Community College, who joined the college when the spam filter began to be used last November. “Those addresses are making it onto marketing lists, and consequently we are receiving spam. It is typically commercial in nature, but a lot of it is pornographic material and offensive.”

Spam is being blocked with about 95 to 98 per cent accuracy, says Bayrock, who notes about 2,600 messages a day are being quarantined as spam, with very few valid e-mail messages being blocked. The college has been using Sophos anti-virus software, which complements the Pure Message product well, added Bayrock.

“It’s a product that is easy to maintain and updates itself automatically,” said Bayrock. “You can find a spam filter program on the Internet for free or a minimal fee, but you don’t get maintenance. It’s left up to the user. By going with a company such as ActiveState, they do provide regular updates and regular maintenance, so my staff doesn’t have to spend time doing that.”

Sean Page, network analyst (internet services) at the Edmonton Public School Board, is satisfied with the difference in incoming e-mail to the school board since it began using PureMessage last November. The product is protecting about 8,000 mailboxes for the school board from spam, with about 90 per cent accuracy. In July alone, the product blocked 500,000 e-mail messages. Page estimated that close to 60 per cent of incoming mail to the school board is spam.

“It’s a time saver,” said Page, who opted to go with PureMessage because it offered technical support and could run on several platforms. “Our time was spent fielding the complaints before we installed PureMessage.”

With estimates of spam doubling to tripling every six months, businesses and educational institutions are searching for methods to block the unsolicited e-mail, said David Ferris, a market analyst and president of San Francisco-based Ferris Research Inc.

“It’s becoming a great irritant for people,” said Ferris, who described ActiveState as one of the top five companies that produces anti-spam software and has a more mature offering of products compared to many competitors.

Chris Kraft, director of product management for PureMessage, notes that his company provides anti-spam services to more than 80 educational institutions including Duke University, Stanford University, and Cornell University as well as University of Leeds and Hong Kong University of Science and Technology.

“There is very little required of the end user, but they do have control to release messages in the quarantine that they do want to see,” explained Kraft.


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Jim Love, Chief Content Officer, IT World Canada

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