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Aggressive spam filters

Topics/tags: Miscellaneous, email, short

As one of the SIGCSE Information Directors [1], I get to see a lot of bounce messages. Sometimes messages bounce for strange reasons (too many hops), sometimes someone has left the institution or changed their email address (there is no one with that email address here), sometimes it’s a generic this message has been tagged as spam, and sometimes there’s a very specific spam message.

Here’s one spam response I recently received.

550-5.7.1 **Your email has been rejected as it contains a shortened URL ( e.g. 550 5.7.1 Please remove the shortened URL(s) and resend .

I have no intention of resending; I didn’t send the original and it’s not worth my time to deal with each recipient’s institution’s view of how to filter spam.

But I’m also interested in the reason to filter. From my perspective, shortened URLs are part and parcel of how people do business on the Interweb. I realize that a shortened URL can lead to a phishing site or one that might download malware. However, almost any link you click on the Interweb can lead to such a site. I guess filtering such messages makes the recipients slightly safer, but it doesn’t seem to be all that much safer.

It’s also an interesting contrast to the wonders [2] of Proofpoint. As you may recall, the Proofpoint software that Grinnell employs rewrites every URL in a message so that when you click on it, it first goes to a site that checks whether you are going to a safe destination. After all, you never know whether or not some evildoer has hijacked But that’s not the contrast I find interesting. Rather, the designers of Proofpoint appear to assume that no one ever reads URLs. Certainly, the mangled URLs that Proofpoint produces are unreadable. Here’s one of them.

Is that safe to click? Where does it lead [3]? The assumption is that I should just trust Proofpoint to filter appropriately and that I don’t care where it leads. But, well, Proofpoint doesn’t always filter well. For example, much of campus received a phishing message this morning. I clicked on the URL this evening and Proofpoint still allows me to reach the phishing site.

I’d like to say that education is the solution to both problems. That is, if people were taught well and understood, then shortened URLs would be permissible and URL rewriting would be unnecessary. Unfortunately, I know from talking to our ITS staff that there is a sufficiently large population of people who aren’t paying enough attention. Every experimental phishing expedition on campus [4] has revealed at least a few passwords. And once an attacker has one account on campus, they can often get access to more things.

Nonetheless, I find a policy that rejects shortened URLs excessive.

[1] That is, the people responsible for managing the mailing lists for the ACM Special Interest Group on Computer Science Education.

[2] When I write wonders, I actually mean horrors.

[3] Okay, in this case it’s pretty clear that it’s somewhere on the SIGCSE site. It’s not always that clear.

[4] For example, when we hire someone to test our security.

Version 1.1 of 2018-06-21.