Spam filters can catch more than just spam messages

Sean Corner was playing rugby for the Hamilton Hornets in Port Colborne in early September when a member of the opposing team ran into him. The other guy was bigger, and he hit Sean hard. Sean’s back was broken. He is not expected to walk again.

Games like rugby can be dangerous, and people who play them know that. Sad as the story is, it wouldn’t be terribly unusual ­- and it certainly wouldn’t have any place in Computing Canada – if it weren’t for this: When Sean Corner took the field that day, he believed he was covered by catastrophic injury insurance.

He wasn’t. The insurance, provided through Rugby Canada, had been cancelled. An e-mail had been sent to the Hamilton Hornets the day before the game in which Sean was injured, advising the team that the insurance was gone.

A spam filter deleted the e-mail.

Whether Sean Corner or any of his teammates would have chosen not to play had they known their insurance had lapsed is anyone’s guess. We do know they would have been offered the choice – Chris Gilks, president of the Hamilton Hornets, told The Globe and Mail that had he seen the e-mail about the insurance cancellation before the game, he would have told his players and given them the option of skipping the game. This incident serves to illustrate the dark side of spam filtering. Stopping junk mail is all very well, but what about the false positives – the legitimate e-mail that doesn’t get through? There is plenty of it. I use spam-filtering software on my PCs. I check the mailbox into which it places what it thinks is spam regularly. I get at least one false positive a day. Most of them are bulk-mailed press releases, so missing one wouldn’t be the end of the world. But I also don’t know what legitimate e-mail my ISP’s e-mail filters are stopping.

When I read Sean Corner’s story, my first thought was that this might be the trigger for a lawsuit that could throw the whole notion of spam filtering into question. Who is liable when the mistaken blocking of an e-mail has this sort of effect on someone’s life? That’s hard to say, according to Bradley Freedman, head of the Vancouver office technology group at national law firm Borden Ladner Gervais. It depends on contracts. If the spam filtering provider’s contract specifies that it isn’t responsible for false positives, if the Internet service provider’s contract disclaims responsibility for lost e-mails, it’s doubtful whether you could successfully sue either of them.

Someone hurt by the failure of an e-mail to arrive might have better luck going after the sender for not using a more reliable means of communication, Freedman suggests.

What people should do is insist that spam-filtering technology provide a way of checking what is being blocked – and use that capability. And press their ISPs to provide ways of reviewing blocked messages. And, when the message absolutely, positively has to get through – pick up the phone.

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Jim Love, Chief Content Officer, IT World Canada

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Grant Buckler
Grant Buckler
Freelance journalist specializing in information technology, telecommunications, energy & clean tech. Theatre-lover & trainee hobby farmer.

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