U of Alberta uses concept filtering to tackle spam

The Faculty of Engineering at the University of Alberta has employed an anti-spam solution from Ottawa-based Nemx Software that uses content filtering, the latest tool in

the anti-spam arsenal.

A network administrator within the engineering faculty, Rick Patsula oversees a local area network of about 50 users in the faculty’s co-op department. Patsula said the volume of unwanted e-mail kept increasing, and productivity was declining with all the time people had to spend wading through the spam. Viruses were also coming through as e-mail attachments.

“”Time was an issue, and people getting offended by the content of the e-mails,”” said Patsula. “”A lot of it was pornography. Now it seems to be all viagra and drugs.””

Since installing Nemx’s Power Tools solution in August Patsula said 5,500 e-mails have been filtered, 2,600 of them spam. They were using the filtering tools contained within Microsoft Outlook, its default e-mail client, but Patsula said that wasn’t sufficient as it was based only on the from: field of the e-mail, which spammers constantly change.

Also, instead of requiring action by the users, Patsula said he wanted something he could manage centrally himself that would run as a service within Exchange.

“”The other programs I looked at didn’t integrate into Exchange the way Nemx did, so from a LAN administrator point of view that was the most important thing for me,”” said Patsula.

Patsula said the Nemx solution seems to be catching about 99 per cent of the spam from reaching his user’s e-mail boxes. He monitors all messages tagged as spam daily, and puts the false positive rate at about one per cent.

The best feature, said Patsula, is the concept filtering. The software filters e-mail in two ways: the traditional keyword search in the subject header field, and the content filter. The software came with pre-set rules that he tweaked for their unique needs, and he said it was up and running quickly.

“”Since I installed it I’ve been looking at my log and I’m catching less and less e-mail through the subject header, and more through the content filter,”” said Patsula.

Nemx president John Young said concept filtering is what sets Power Tools apart from other anti-spam programs. The technology takes a step back and looks for patterns within the message, like the word “”free”” being used with the word “”viagra””, if there a Web site to visit for more information, or an abundance of colour and HTML.

“”When you look at a message, you can usually tell very quickly whether it’s spam or not,”” said Young. “”That’s really what concept manager is trying to do — to simulate that process. It’s using different techniques than have been used in fighting spam, and it’s proving to be pretty effective.””

Young said configuration is a two-part process. First, the action to be taken when a message is flagged as spam must be defined — deletion, quarantine or redirection. Second, the rules and concepts need to be defined to help the software to identify spam and select what level of scrutiny you want the program to undertake.

Power tools comes with a pre-defined set of rules and Young said Nemx is constantly monitoring what new tricks spammers are using and what products they’re hawking to allow the company to provide monthly rules updates, much like anti-virus updates.

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Jeff Jedras
Jeff Jedras
Jeff Jedras is a technology journalist with IT World Canada and a member of the IT Business team. He began his career in technology journalism in the late 1990s, covering the Ottawa technology sector for Silicon Valley North and the Ottawa Business Journal. He later covered the technology scene in Vancouver before joining IT World Canada in Toronto in 2005, covering enterprise IT for ComputerWorld Canada and the channel for Computer Dealer News. His writing has also appeared in the Vancouver Sun & the Ottawa Citizen.

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