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Is the CAN-SPAM Act a help or a hindrance?

Three years have passed since CAN-SPAM was enacted, but has this legislation truly contained unsolicited commercial email? In this tip, contributor Joel Dubin examines if the law has effectively cracked down on spamming activities and examines how to put a stop to this email misuse.

It's been three years since Congress passed the Controlling the Assault of Non-Solicited Pornography And Marketing Act of 2003, also known as CAN-SPAM. And, shortly after the legislation passed, Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates predicted that spam would disappear within a few years – and he wasn't alone.

So, has CAN-SPAM helped the industry? While some argue email has become more dangerous since CAN-SPAM was enacted, I believe the increased email danger is due to changes in the spamming technology and scams; these changes are independent of the law and would have happened regardless of whether it has been signed into law. However, regardless of what you believe, it's clear to see that CAN-SPAM has been ineffective. And here are four reasons why:

1. Spam can't be legislated into oblivion. Why? Well, for starters, spam isn't a legal problem, nor is it an American problem that can be solved by American legislation. It's a global problem with international consequences not only for the countries where it originates, but also for all the countries for which it's destined.

2. CAN-SPAM hasn't changed spam content. Pitches for Viagra and cut-rate medications never seem to go away. And while pornography -- a mainstay of spam for a long time -- has dipped, it has been quickly replaced by "pump and dump" stock scams. These occur when fraudulent stocks are sold by spammers, who pump up sales of the stocks, and their prices, and then dump them at a profit.

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3. CAN-SPAM couldn't anticipate changes in technology that have increased spam, specifically image spam and botnets. Today, it's estimated that two-thirds of spam is embedded in images that bypass filters tuned to scan only for suspicious text. The spam is then delivered by botnets, which are bought and sold to criminals who use them to send out huge volumes of spam.

4. SPAM remains a lucrative business. Unlike junk mail, spam doesn't need postage. Even the cost of the email service is probably free, since most spammers steal bandwidth, leach off other services through SMTP relays, or use botnets. Therefore, even if the typical spam mailing consisting of millions of emails solicits just a small number of replies, an enterprising malicious hacker can still make decent money.

Don't kick the CAN

However, while CAN-SPAM may not have reduced the amount of spam, it has had some positive effects. First, honest U.S. businesses that use email for mass mailings must meet the following stringent requirements:

  • The sender in the "From" or "To" fields and the domain in the email header must be legitimate
  • Subject lines must not be deceptive
  • Customers must be provided with a way to opt-out of future email
  • The email must have a valid postal address for the company distributing it.

CAN-SPAM has also helped resolve a number of national and international criminal actions. For example, since the CAN-SPAM legislation was passed, many flagrant spammers operating in the U.S. have been arrested and businesses found in violation have been fined.

But, regardless of these efforts, spam keeps filling email boxes. So, then, where is it coming from? Even though U.S. spam operations have been vastly limited, CAN-SPAM hasn't slowed down overseas spammers. Many have reacted to the law by simply setting up shop overseas, without bothering to establish a physical presence in the U.S. It's been estimated that at least half the world's spam originates in Russia and the Ukraine, and China and South Korea are also becoming players.

Spam today, spam tomorrow

It's now estimated that more than 90% of email around the world is spam. The volumes have grown so much that it has started to threaten email's effectiveness as a communications tool. It's also a threat to Web-based businesses that use email to notify customers of purchases and account changes. Those same customers have become suspicious, and after getting a deluge of spam – some laced with phishing attacks – they've begun to slowly lose faith in email.

So what will it take to crack down on spam? One thing's certain -- it won't be laws like CAN-SPAM. It'll be crackdowns on spam-generating botnets and closer supervision of email gateways by ISPs. Breaking the back of botnets will require a joint effort of the information security community and law enforcement armed with existing hacking laws – not CAN-SPAM.

About the Author:
Joel Dubin, CISSP, is an independent computer security consultant. He is a Microsoft MVP in developer security, specializing in Web and application security, and the author of The Little Black Book of Computer Securityavailable from Amazon.

Next Steps

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Has CAN-SPAM helped or hindered the fight against spam? What would you do to make it better? Let us know.

This was last published in February 2007

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