As Bowdoin's Information Technology Department (IT) fights the ongoing battle with spam, students are trying different methods to deal with the junk emails that clog their inboxes. Despite the purchase of two sophisticated filters that cost around $5,000 to purchase and 20 percent of that per year for service and support, students are still receiving numerous spam emails every day. And, according to Chief Information Officer Mitch Davis, the problem is not going away.
"Spam is a never-ending issue," Davis said. "We have two spam filters that filter messages on a daily basis, but spam is just getting worse, not better."
According to Davis and Senior Administrator of IT Randy Pelletier, the major issue with spam involves the lists that professors use to send out emails to their classes. Most students receiving spam get emails addressed to these lists, not to their personal accounts.
This problem is preventable, says Pelletier, by making the lists inaccessible to anyone without a Bowdoin email account. However, according to Pelletier, many professors want to leave these lists open to emailers outside the Bowdoin system and do not request this protection.
"Most people don't know or don't care or aren't willing to go out on a limb and prevent spam from emailing to their lists," Pelletier said. "Given the appropriate amount of foresight, the instructor of the class could tell me to let this person [outside the Bowdoin email system] email my list, and I could open the list for that."
When asked why professors don't take advantage of this option, Pelletier responded that professors "have more important things to do."
When questioned about the option of closing class email lists to outside traffic, Associate Professor of Chemistry and Environmental Studies Dharni Vasudevan said that she was not aware of it. Vasudevan also said that if she had known about it, she would have closed her class lists, and plans to do so next semester. Associate Professor of Film Studies Tricia Welsch responded similarly, saying that she was also unaware of the option.
Students offered a range of opinions about the performance of the spam filtering system. "It used to be good last year, but this year it's falling apart," Ian Haight '08 said. Other students said that they receive between four and ten spam emails each day.
Bowdoin's IT department has already taken numerous steps to mitigate the problem. "We've purchased spam firewalls that are updated daily and filter all inbound mail," Davis said. These firewalls block upward of 30,000 emails a day, and tag an additional 10,000 to 15,000 emails with a "bulk" listing. These tagged emails still go to the user's inbox, but are prominently labeled as "bulk."
However, according to Pelletier, the more sophisticated spammers have ways to get around these firewalls.
"Those with deep pockets go out and buy the same products we have and with reverse engineering find a way around it," he said. "The emails that are short and curt are stealth and get around the firewall entirely."
Pelletier encouraged students frustrated by spam to take matters into their own hands. "If you go into the MyMail setting, there's an option to turn on spam filtering," Pelletier said. "That creates a spam folder, and anything that gets tagged by our firewalls gets dumped in there."
Many students have said they started using other programs to view their Bowdoin email. "When I used to use the Bowdoin webmail on the internet, then there was junk email clogging it," Charles Stern '09 said. "Now I use the Apple mail program, which I've trained to filter out the junk email, so I don't actually see them."
"It's not going to be a problem we can solve with a panacea, because it's constantly evolving," Pelletier said.
"It's an ongoing battle, and it gets worse month by month because spammers devise new techniques as needed. It's a very dynamic group of folks out there, very smart," he said.