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The Sad Confusion of SPAM and Viruses

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The Sad Confusion of SPAM and Viruses

It should not happen, but less than competent ISP Customer Care Staff have taken the Kama Sutra Worm as a weird opportunity to show how well they protect their customers.

There has long been an argument that an ISP should scan email for known virus patterns and that quarantining those emails found to contain them would all but eliminate anything except zero day viruses and the like. ISPs have long resisted because they see that as infringing their customers' right to privacy a specious argument, though one that starts to become justifiable if government agencies gain the right to ask for scans for (eg) pornography.

Compliance and Privacy has now found an instance of an ISP petting very confused. Kingston Communications supplies a great deal of internet service in Hull in the North East of England, and its service spills into a far wider area. Its "Karoo" brand services many domestic end users, and, two weeks into February 2006 it turned on its server side anti spam filtration into an aggressive mode.

Sadly it used the Kama Sutra virus as its excuse. It stated that a large quantity of SPAM had been generated by the Kama Sutra virus. But the virus generates a payload which is a virus, whatever the odd messages that go along with it.

On Sunday 5 th March 2006 customers of the Karoo brand started to receive emails stating that the aggressive spam controls had been turned on and that users could check the Karoo website to release any emails that had been quarantined for the past two weeks. There was an apology for late delivery of emails wrapped up in this somewhere.

But the entire point is that the ISP, and not a particularly small ISP at that, had confused its message to its customers.

Our Compliance and Privacy reporter called the customer care line and was told that this was, indeed, due to SPAM "created by the virus" and that the Karoo email servers had been under a huge load because of this. The careline confirmed that the aggressive settings had been turned on "approximately two weeks ago", and this was because of SPAM.

Our reporter had noticed a violent downturn in inbound emails recently, and, on checking the website found a huge mixture of real and SPAM emails with a few viruses thrown in for good measure. In all he found 233 emails quarantined in a little used email account. Several were of a business nature and had been missed and retrieved in the interim via other ISPs and the goodness of the senders.

The alleged SPAM emails were from recognised domains with perfectly valid email headers and wholly valid content that would never have triggered any normal SPAM filter. So the SPAM Trap has been very arbitrary. We would expect the use of common public domain block lists, not random SPAM scoring. We saw no evidence of block list use.

The point is that this was neither "compliance" nor was it "privacy". To comply, the emails should only have been scanned for viruses, and Karoo should also have used block lists. This is accepted procedure by ISPs and others who would expect to block SPAM.

We award Karoo low marks for implementation and high marks for a valiant attempt. But confusing of SPAM and Virus by a professional organisation is definitely a "See me after school" offence.

We're not singling them out for special treatment. This article's purpose is to remind people that custiomers appreciate good housekeeping done for the right reasons, and with advance warning. Trapping emails and giving retrospective notification with a spurious reason is poor marketing and poor customer care. SPAM is Spam and a virus is a virus, after all. The only similarity is that both tend to arrive by email!

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