University uses security measures to stop junk e-mail

Account options allow students to determine amount of security for spam and viruses.

Jeannine Aquino

It took pre-journalism junior Brent Lucio five days to accumulate 108 pieces of junk mail in his Hotmail account. At his University account, however, it would be rare to find even one.

This is because the Office of Information Technology takes steps to prevent spam and virus-infected messages from reaching student e-mails. Through a three-tiered process involving spam blocking, spam assessment filtering and virus scanning, central e-mail services can ensure junk mail remains rare.

The first way the University prevents spam is through blocking.

Steve Siirila, an information technology professional in charge of managing the University’s e-mail servers, said the office uses block lists like spamhaus, which is a large database of known spammers and exploited computers.

“If we see anything from that Internet address, we raise a red flag,” he said. “We know nothing good comes from there.”

All University accounts are automatically set to allow e-mail from well-behaved servers, meaning servers that are legitimate. Users can determine how much they want blocked from their accounts, however, by changing their Internet account options (from www.mail.umn.edu). Clicking “incoming e-mail controls” allows users to unblock certain sites.

Spam filtering is another option. The University uses a program called SpamAssassin, which finds suspicious e-mail and adds the tag “*****SPAM*****” to an e-mail’s subject line, according to an Office of Information Technology newsletter. If the e-mail is legitimate, users can allow it by clicking a “Report-as-Good” option. Although SpamAssassin is not set by default, users can add it through the University’s Internet account options.

Any mail that makes it past the blocking and filtering programs must then go through a virus scanner. The programs filter those messages that have known virus signatures.

The University has blocked about 4 million or 5 million messages in the past week, Siirila said.

Last December, however, University tech specialists saw about 8 million a week.

“We saw a really high spike in virus activity,” he said. “It’s primarily because brand new viruses come in, brand new addresses we hadn’t seen before.”

Ben Christenson, a recent computer science graduate and current member of the Computer Security Association, said the University’s e-mail system is “hands down the best” compared with other sites.

“They are very proactive about it at the “U,’ ” Christenson said, referring to the steps the University takes to prevent spam.

Unlike the University’s system, Lucio said he had to put the security limit at its highest level in his Hotmail account so that junk mail wouldn’t reach his inbox.

“I think the (University’s) system is a little better than others,” he said.

Although the University has programs in place to monitor spam, Siirila said students can help by reporting it to the University. Clicking the “Report-as-Spam” option helps tech specialists fine-tune their spam controls.

“The higher the number (reported), the more likely it is to get attention,” he said. “Because we’re such a large enterprise, it only takes a few people to report spam from a given site for us to block.”