DALLAS — Ten years ago, a librarian posted a message on one of the first online discussion groups devoted to battling spam. ‘‘Is it just my imagination, or is the spamming rate suddenly picking up?’’ she asked in August 1995.
It wasn’t her imagination, of course. Spam has come to dominate e-mail traffic, making up at least half of all messages transmitted over the Internet — and morphing from mere online disturbance to looming threat to productivity.
Yet for all of today’s frustrations over unwanted e-mail, an uneasy balance has been struck. The vast army of anti-spam forces may not be powerful enough to obliterate phishing scams and Nigerian financial schemes, but they are strong enough to protect e-mail users from most of the gunk.
‘‘The average inbox doesn’t have that much spam anymore,’’ said Anne Mitchell, chief executive of the Institute for Spam and Internet Public Policy. ‘‘The end user would probably say the spam problem is not so bad. They only get a fewaday.’’
The successes so far in the struggle against spam have all unfolded behind the scenes.
Businesses large and small pay for software that will keep spam at bay, spending $300 million on antispam products in 2003. And new threats arise from time to time, such as the spam associated with phishing financial scams.
Anti-spam crusaders are reluctant to claim victory against spam, wary of provoking new attacks. Some businesses decline to comment on their use of anti-spam technology as a matter of policy, though they, too, privately confess that they’ve made progress.
Today the war looks more like a fight against a guerrilla insurgency. Anti-spam fighters study the enemy’s habits and behavior, observing techniques and adjusting their defenses. Spammers seek out weaknesses in the system, exploit them, get caught and start all over again.
Mainstream Internet users, meanwhile, live their lives normally, only occasionally getting a reminder that the enemy is still out there. A tricky spam winds through the corporate network without setting off alarms in the company’s anti-spam software, landing in a user’s inbox with a garbled, misspelled offer for Viagra or a mortgage.
It’s annoying but easily deleted. That’s the way it goes for employees at Essilor of America Inc., the Dallas-based unit of the French optical lens maker.
Early last year, the company hired e-mail security provider Postini Inc. to filter its e-mail, more out of concern about e-mail-borne viruses than about spam.
Postini’s software and services filtered out 67 percent of the 624,395 e-mails Essilor employees received in June from outside the company.
Like other e-mail security companies, Postini puts questionable e-mails into a ‘‘quarantine’’ where users can review them to make sure they’re not legitimate. But most were certainly spam.
After hiring Postini, ‘‘I had a lot of very positive feedback, especially from users who had been receiving 100 e-mails a day of garbage,’’ said Paul Hayse, who oversees Essilor’s office automation and computer support.
‘‘The biggest surprise for me, once we turned it on and had it working, was the number and volume of e-mails that were coming in from the Internet.’’