Feds mull approaches to stop spam

Federal employees have begun to discuss ways to stop the increasing load of spam directed at their government e-mail boxes, but federal information technology policy groups have yet to decide what the best course would be.

How the government should deal with spam surfaced this month on a federal listserv used mostly by government employees involved with the Internet. Some members thought the government should get more aggressive about shaping a governmentwide policy to guide how departments and agencies go about managing incoming e-mail messages. Others thought decisions about incoming e-mail should be left to individual users and their delete keys.

Some spam e-mail messages are simple sales pitches, while others are pornographic in nature. Some offer get-rich-quick schemes. Other, more menacing forms of spam have one purpose: to flood government World Wide Web sites with so many messages that the sites freeze and users cannot access the sites.

Rich Kellett, division director of the General Services Administration's Emerging Information Technologies Policies Division, launched the frank listserv discussion by posting a provocative message asking members to write about what their agencies are doing to block incoming commercial e-mail messages.

Mike Bowman, information technologies manager in the Navy's Office of the General Counsel, argued in his message on the federal listserv for as little government e-mail intervention as possible.

"I'm not sure why it would be any more appropriate for the government to set up arbitrary criteria for screening e-mail to any government employees' account than to start censoring mail and pre-disposing of junk snail mail on the theory that someone in government is omnipotent enough to know what an individual should or [should] not receive," Bowman wrote. "I probably get over a hundred e-mails a day and may be putting a lot of wear and tear on the delete key, but I'd take that any day over more centralized control over what I can or can't see coming in as e-mail."

Bowman pointed out that reviewing vendor e-mail is integral to some government employees, such as program managers, who need to stay abreast of industry advances and be informed of products.

According to Keith Thurston, assistant to the deputy associate administrator in GSA's Office of Governmentwide Policy, individual agencies can deal with incoming e-mail as they see fit. "People have various levels of security, and at the present time there is not a single standard for gateway security and filtering," he said.

Thurston sits on a subcommittee of the CIO Council that has studied trying to craft a governmentwide e-mail policy.

Some agencies use filters that screen incoming e-mail and search for clues that the messages are spam. Filters can do things such as determine if the individual messages are part of mass mailings sent from companies or groups. Other agencies have less sophisticated filters, or none at all, which means more e-mail gets in, Thurston said.

But tight filters that block a lot of spam would save the government money, said Ray Everett-Church, a Washington, D.C., attorney who specializes in e-mail issues. "I certainly would much rather have federal employees avoid spending time dealing with the spam themselves, avoiding the problems with lost productivity and costs" associated with receiving and storing unsolicited e-mails, he said.

Kellett said there should be a governmentwide policy, or at least a coordinated effort, to deal with spam. "I don't think it's complicated, but I think we could come up with a good policy," he said.

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