Ministry takes pragmatic approach

The Ministry of Social Development takes a fairly tolerant attitude to spam that does no active harm to processors or infrastructure, says infrastructure chief Neil Miranda.

The Ministry of Social Development takes a fairly tolerant attitude to spam that does no active harm to processors or infrastructure, says infrastructure chief Neil Miranda.

“We don’t block unsolicited mail unless it’s something dangerous we know about, like a virus”, or an attachment posing high virus risk, Miranda says.

The organisation naturally has a filter for viruses, and also only admits attached files of certain types. Its “whitelist” currently contains 15 permitted file-types and everything else is diverted. Offending email is not removed but put in a separate mailbox. The mailbox is accessible to specialists on staff, who can pick up common characteristics and sources of spam and decide whether to return any apparently innocent messages to the main mail stream. Messages are purged from the quarantine box after a week.

The attachment-type ban brought some protest from MSD staff, saying blanket bans on file-types went too far. In the early days of the measure, some said they needed files of certain types that were innocent of damaging content; but top management and IT infrastructure management insisted, and the objections “died down after a while”, says Miranda.

MSD does not ban mail coming from certain addresses, unless they are very well known sources of spam. There are “millions” of email addresses, he says, and trying to block every spam source by address would be a hopeless task.

But even harmless spam wastes communication capacity and disk space on the network, doesn’t it? In the former respect, spam is not significant in its effect at MSD, Miranda says, and as far as the latter goes, it’s a user problem. Users get 7MB each for their personal email storage and if that limit is exceeded, mail to them will be blocked, he says. It’s up to the users to delete the rubbish in their in-boxes promptly.

Deleting spam email wastes some user time, he acknowledges, but the same applies to voicemail and physical mail. “If any box gets crammed with junk, real mail is likely to get lost; it’s the owner’s responsibility to keep the rubbish cleaned out.”

It is a mistake, though, he adds, to concentrate purely on external spam. Like other kinds of computer abuse, a lot of irrelevant email can be generated within the organisation. That is a management and training problem and internal remedies are available.

Senders can be trained to “use email properly”, avoiding irrelevancies and stating the subject in the header clearly, so the recipient knows immediately if it’s relevant for him/her. Recipients can also be told “if you receive this kind of mail, don’t waste time reading it, just delete it”.

There are channels in MSD for users to complain to management about receiving large volumes of spam, Miranda says, but to his recollection, no complaints have ever been made.

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