Department Management Science and Technology
Athens University of Economics and Business
The prevalence of commercial unsolicited email (spam) is rapidly decreasing
email’s utility to the point where many would consider their participation in aspam-resistant though incompatible mail system an alternative more attractive thanthe current situation. By employing a different approach for machine-generatedand person-to-person email we can design a system supporting all current legiti-mate email modalities while severely restricting the ability to send spam. Specifi-cally, physical users are limited to sending only a small reasonable number of emailmessages over a given period through a a distributed hash-based scheme of mes-sage registration DNS lookups. A revocable ostracism policy guards against thecreation of fictitious users by unscrupulous domain holders. Machine-generatedmessages are processed by a completely different mechanism based on whitelistingprinciples. Different (humanly-readable) whitelisting specifications can be used toallow end-users to specify the machine-generated email they are really willing toaccept.
The prevalence of commercial unsolicited email (spam) is rapidly decreasing email’sutility to the point where many would consider their participation in a spam-resistantthough incompatible mail system an alternative more attractive than the current situa-tion. After all, not many years ago, email was a luxury available to Internet-connecteduniversities and research centers. This paper proposes the design and principles ofoperation of such a system.
∗Revision Id: nospam.tex 1.6 2004/02/09 08:08:10 dds Exp . This is a work-in-progress draft. Comments
are welcome. Please do not redistribute other than by sending the original document’s URL.
Rationale and Specifications
One of the problems of designing a system against spam is defining what a spam mes-sage is. Invariably, various technical or legal definitions of spam messages end-upserving as targets for spammers to circumvent. As an example, at the time of thiswriting spammers generate messages that get past Bayesian filtering mechanisms bythe inclusion of rare words in the message body. Rather than adopt a fixed approachagainst a rapidly changing and evolving target a more promising avenue is to examinethe properties of the current email system that make spam possible.
1. Any entity can send an arbitrarily large number of email messages.
2. No prior agreement is required between the entity sending a message and its
3. Email messages can be machine-generated and automatically sent.
Spammers take advantage of the above properties by machine generating millions ofspam messages, sending them to arbitrary recipients. Each of the properties we listedis useful on its own, and restricting it would diminish the utility of email as a communi-cations medium. As an example for each of them consider that: an organization mightneed to send a mass email to its employees, an old school friend might want to reestab-lish contact after many years, or a vendor might want to notify a customer that anorder has been processed. Interestingly however, restricting the interactions
betweenthe properties we listed results into specifications that do not appear to significantlyhamper email’s utility.
1. A (real) person
can only send a small fixed number of email messages over a
2. No prior agreement is required between the person
sending a message and its
3. Email messages can be machine-generated and automatically sent only by prior
The above restrictions are reasonable and do not restrict typical mail interactions. Aperson typing an email message every minute can not write more than 500 emails in an8-hour working day; the utility of uninvited machine-generated messages is marginal,while machine generated messages can easily support sophisticated identification andauthentication that can be used to verify a prior arrangement. These restrictions cannot obliterate spam (a person can still type-in and send a message offering productsto enhance the dimensions of specific bodily parts), but, if implemented, will bringthe cost of email interactions within the cost level of other far less intrusive marketingschemes.
The restrictions we described boil down into a framework of two basic requirements:
1. Real persons can not send more than N
messages over a time period T
2. Machine-generated messages can only be sent after a verifiable prior arrange-
ment between the sender and the recipient.
The difficulty of implementing the framework requirements we described is in the non-functional characteristics a system should satisfy.
The mechanisms that limit the number of messages a person can send over a time
period shall satisfy the following non-functional specifications:
The methods for establishing email users as real persons
shall be scalable to billions of users.
Methods for providing user email addresses shall accommo-
date the different organizational, legal, and social realities for determining bonafide persons on a global scale.
The verification of the number of emails a person has sent
shall scale to billions of email messages every day.
The system verifying the number of emails a person has sent
shall be robust in the face of network outages and denial of service attacks.
Inevitably, a system based on the relatively subjective notion of a person, can
result can result in disagreements. Is an unborn person, or a dog allowed to sendemail? The 1 million impoverished inhabitants of a region who have sold theirright to individual email addresses to a spammer? The system shall thereforeprovide fair, flexible, decentralized, efficient, and low-overhead procedures fordealing with such problems.
The non-functional requirements for generating and verifying machine-generated
email are less difficult to deal with. Machine generated email includes:
• email triggered by specific events such as the dispatch of an order, or a commit
notice from a software version control system, and
• one-off transactions, such as the sending of a password for accessing a web site.
The related non-functional requirements are:
The system shall provide mechanisms for arranging the receipt of any of
There will be new uses of machine generated email that were not be
anticipated by this proposal. The system shall provide backwards compatibleextension mechanisms for accommodating those uses.
Given the potential for abusing machine-generated email messages such
abuses shall be readily traceable and identifiable as such, even without softwareintermediation.
The system’s design covers two separate classes of email: personal and machine-generated. Servicing both classes is needed for providing the functionality of currentemail systems. However, the design and implementation of the handlers for the twoemail classes can be totally separate. There are no interactions between the two, allow-ing their separate design, implementation, validation, and evolution.
The following design satisfies the requirements for sending personal email.
1. Mail from a specific user shall only be sent from a host with a name partially or
completely matching the sender’s email address.
2. When a message is sent the sending host MTA shall attempt to register the mes-
sage identifier and the message’s sender with the MTAs of three other hosts. Atleast two of the registrations shall succeed before the message is delivered.
3. The hosts where mail messages are registered are determined by a distributed
two-level hash-based scheme of message registration
(MR) DNS lookups:
(a) The originator’s email address is used to generate a hash value.
(b) The hash value is split into two parts: a large upper part and a small lower
(c) The small lower part is used to query the root DNS server for the three TLD
(d) The large upper part is used to query the corresponding TLD servers for the
three MTAs servicing MRs for the complete recipient’s address.
(e) Apart from the part of the hash, queries and replies also include the mes-
sage’s origination time, recorded in a separate field of the message header.
(f) The message origination time is divided into larger (e.g. day and month
long) periods used to calculate the server’s response. As a result, the re-sponse of a server for a given email address will vary across time.
(g) Servers maintain a window of replies for a reasonable number of time pe-
(h) Server MR responses are calculated in a deterministic manner and are there-
fore fixed for the time period they apply to. Therefore, the responses shallbe aggressively cached.
(i) To avoid a deluge of queries when a cached reply expires, MTAs shall pre-
cache the top level values for the next period by performing queries duringthe previous period.
(j) The calculation of a server’s reply also includes a secret random key gen-
erated for each server. This precludes the batch calculation of servers re-sponsible for given addresses.
(k) The MR queries for a given domain shall be used for maintaining per-
domain MR frequency tables (MRFTs) at the top-level domain hosts.
(l) The MRFT records shall be retrieved via the DNS by lower domain hosts for
allocating MR host allocations in a fair and deterministic manner.
4. When an MTA receives an email message is shall perform the following actions.
(a) Verify that the message’s origination time is within a time period reason-
able for delivering a message (e.g. 48 hours).
(b) Independently establish and contact the MR hosts corresponding to the mes-
sage sender and query them regarding an overflow in the number of mes-sages registered by the sender for the period of the message’s originationtime. The queried MR hosts will reply indicating an overflow if the num-ber of registered messages for that user in the given period is above N
, themaximum reasonable number of messages a person can send in a day (e.g.
(c) The MTA will discard the message if at least two MR hosts indicate an over-
flow condition. The MTA will not deliver the mail until it has establishedcontact with at least two MR hosts.
(d) To guard against denial of service attacks, when a message is discarded due
to a large number of registered messages by a given sender, the sender isnotified with a list of IP addresses used to send the corresponding messages.
5. An optional user validation (UV) scheme can be used in loosely structured orga-
nizations (e.g. Internet cafes, educational establishments, ISPs) to minimize thedamage incurred from hosts hijacked by a spammer.
(a) A domain used in user email addresses can have a UV DNS record associ-
ated with it. The record shall identify a user validation server.
(b) A user validation server accepts requests containing the name of an email
user for the domain it services and responds identifying the user’s validity.
(c) When an MTA receives a message from a domain that has a UV record
associated with it, it will first validated the sender using the UV server. Ifthe sender is not validated, the message is discarded.
6. An ostracism
procedure is used to isolate secondary level domains used to per-
(a) A mail user can request the ostracism of a secondary domain by sending an
email message to the corresponding top-level domain holder.
(b) A mail user can only send a limited number of ostracism requests over a
given time period (e.g. one every week).
(c) The mechanism used for limiting the number of ostracism requests is sim-
ilar to the one used to limit the number of email messages per user.
(d) If a sufficient number of users from a sufficient number of different do-
mains request the ostracism of a secondary level domain, that domain isautomatically added to the ostracism list of the top level domain.
(e) When a domain is ostracized its contact person is notified.
(f) A host MTA will perform an ostracism (OSTR) DNS query for a given do-
main before accepting email from it.
(g) The diversity of users and domains is established using values from the
MRFT records to discourage coordinated attacks by a small group of emailusers.
(h) An appeal procedure and system is used to guard against malicious os-
i. A domain’s administrator can appeal against an ostracism to the man-
agement authority of the corresponding higher level domain.
ii. A malicious ostracism attempt will be cleared without further ado.
iii. A large number of cleared ostracism attempts mark the domain as re-
quiring human intervention (by TLD personnel) before being ostra-cized. This feature counters repeated ostracism attempts against thedomain of the hated-organization.com.
iv. A justifiable ostracism shall require the payment of a fine to the re-
sponsible TLD registrar for the ostracism to be cleared.
v. The TLD registrars shall agree on a sliding scale for ostracism fines
designed to discourage spammers, provide incentives from keepingmachines from becoming hijacked, and avoid unfairly penalizing re-sponsible citizens for an occasional mishap. As an example, the finecan double after every justifiable ostracism, and halve after every yearwithout one.
(i) If needed, the ostracism system can be extended to also cover top-level
On February 3rd, 2004, John ([email protected]
) wants to send an email messageto Mary ([email protected]
1. John’s MTA accepts the message for delivery.
2. John’s email address hashes into 0f56e34fb3d8. It is split into an upper part
3. The company.com MTA queries the root DNS server (or most probably uses a
cached value) for the TLDs providing the MR records for the tuple (d8, February2004).
4. The response is the triplet (.com, .au, .com).
5. The company.com MTA queries the corresponding TLDs for the MR hosts for
the tuple (0f56e34fb3, day 34 of 2004).
6. The responses are a triplet (pear.com, surf.au, banana.com).
7. The company.com MTA registers the message with the MTAs at pear.com,
8. The company.com MTA delivers the message to the MTA of organization.org.
9. The organization.org MTA verifies, using a reverse lookup, that the mes-
sage has originated from company.com.
10. The organization.org MTA verifies, using an OSTR DNS query to the
.com TLD, that company.com is not an ostracized domain.
11. The organization.org MTA independently maps John’s [email protected]
sender address and the messages origination time into the MR host triplet (pear.com,surf.au, banana.com).
12. The organization.org MTA queries the corresponding hosts regarding an
overflow condition on John’s email address.
13. A lack of an overflow condition allows the message to be delivered to Mary.
Machine-generated email is handled following a whitelisting principle: recipients ofmachine-generated email messages shall notify the corresponding MTA about theirwillingness to accept the messages. The notification (and corresponding cancellations)shall be performed by appropriate email messages. Additional interfaces (e.g. web-based) can also be provided.
1. Mail from a specific domain shall only be sent from a host with a name partially
or completely matching the sender’s email address.
2. Each machine-generated email message shall contain header elements contain-
ing the whitelisting scheme employed and scheme-specific data.
3. The recipient MTA verifies the whitelisting details against registered acceptable
messages and forwards or discards the message.
4. To avoid unneeded message traffic the email’s sender is notified when a message
is rejected, by a formally-specified rejection report.
5. Rejection reports are never delivered to physical users.
6. All machine-generated forwarded messages are modified by the MTA to contain
a way to cancel the corresponding whitelisting instruction.
7. Users can subscribe a message originator to a whitelist by sending a suitable mail
message to their incoming message MTA. The message is sufficiently descriptiveto allow the user to verify the whitelisting conditions. The interpretation of thewhitelisting specification can also be performed by the user’s MUA to allow itslocalized representation.
A few whitelisting schemes appear to cover a large number of cases.
whitelisting scheme simply involves registering the recipient’s willing-ness to accept messages from a given address. It is suitable for accepting a large volumeof email from a source the end-user trusts. Examples include machine-generated mailreports, and unmoderated mailing lists.
whitelisting scheme involves registering the recipient’s willingness toaccept no more than M
messages over each time period P
. Each message receivedincrements a counter of messages stored by the recipient’s MTA; when the counterreaches its limit for a given period new messages are discarded. The counter is reset atthe end of the period. This scheme is suitable for registering to newsletters and otherpublications of organizations the recipient would prefer to keep at arm’s length.
whitelisting scheme involves registering the recipient’s willingness to acceptno more than M
messages over a single time period P
. Each message received incre-ments a counter of messages stored by the recipient’s MTA; when the counter reaches itslimit new messages are discarded. This scheme is suitable for accepting email requiredto complete a given transaction, but restrict the sender’s ability to continue using thataddress. The scheme can be used for sending back the password for a given service, ornotifying a buyer about the progress of a specific order.
Cynthia ([email protected]
) wants to order a can of dog food from the fine pur-veyor dogfood.com. After Cynthia has given her email address the following ap-pears on her web client.
To be able to notify you about the progress of your order you must give oursystems permission to send you email. We need your permission to send
you three email messages (order details, dispatch details, payment details)over the next 30 days. Please click on this link to generate the correspond-ing permission email message. Only after you send this message we willstart dispatching your order.
Clicking on the link will generate an email message with the following contents:
Subject: Batch whitelist addition request
Every message Cynthia receives from dogfood.com will be modified by the
home.com MTA to start with the following text:
You are receiving this email message, because on February 3rd, 2004 yougave us instructions to accept 3 email messages from dogfood.com overa period of 30 days. 9 days have elapsed, 21 days are remaining. 2 mes-sage(s) have been received.
Click on the link below if you want to cancel these instructions.
To implement the scheme the following changes in the Internet infrastructure are re-quired.
1. Create precise technical and operational specifications for this scheme in the
2. Modify DNS servers to support MR and MRFT queries and maintain MRFT records.
OSTR records can probably be maintained using normal updating procedures.
3. Implement and deploy UV servers, where required.
4. Modify MTAs to perform MR operations when sending or receiving a person-
5. Modify MTAs to accept whitelisting requests and verify whitelisted messages.
6. Setup TLD administration procedures to deal with ostracism requests.
7. Modify web-based email registration forms to automatically generate appropri-
While the above changes are not trivial, they are certainly smaller in scale than thoserequired for example for an IPv6 transition. Many people consider the problem of spammore pressing than the problems IPv6 will solve.
It is highly unlikely to convince a large number of organizations to adopt the proposedscheme from the beginning. I envisage the transition taking place in a grassroots man-ner.
• Initially selected open-source implementations of the critical infrastructure tools
(MTAs, DNS servers) are modified to support the scheme.
• A distributed network of volunteers maintain the services that will eventually be
• People begin using this system and recommend it to their friends and colleagues.
• Network effects increase the system’s utility as a communications medium, while
spam and deserting users erode the usefulness for the current email system.
• Vendors and organizations catch-up with the trend, supporting the system.
This is a live document. I welcome comments regarding the proposed scheme and
its implementation. Particularly valuable are comments that indicate a showstoppervulnerability I may have overlooked, or suggestions for making the system more robust,efficient, and usable.
Appendix A: You Might Be An Anti-Spam Kook If.
Found at http://www.rhyolite.com/anti-spam/you-might-be.html
Each item in the following list was suggested by the words or actions of people
who presented themselves to the IETF or elsewhere as having discovered the FUSSP.
Some of the items may seem obscure to those who have not dealt with the IETF.
• You have discovered the Final Ultimate Solution to the Spam Problem (FUSSP).
• You are the first to think of the FUSSP.
• You started looking for the FUSSP after observing that it is impossible to fil-
ter more than 99% of spam with fewer than 0.1% false positives by currentlyavailable mechanisms.
• Despite being the inventor of the FUSSP, you are unfamiliar with "false pos-
itive," "false negative," "UBE," "tarpit," "teergrube," "Brightmail," "Postini,""SpamAssassin," "DNS blacklist," "HELO," "RBL," or "mail envelope."
• You plan to make money by licensing the FUSSP.
• You don’t plan to make a fortune from the FUSSP, but you do expect fame as its
generous and public spirited netizen inventor.
• You are deeply hurt and angry because you are not respected as "spam fighter."
• People don’t see the value of the FUSSP because they have axes to grind, are
jealous, or are too stupid to understand it.
• You learned how to stop spam during the more than six whole weeks you’ve been
• The FUUSP assumes that your attention is so important that strangers, other than
advertisers, from will pay money to send you mail.
• Despite having invented the FUSSP, you not only don’t know the difference be-
tween the SMTP envelope and SMTP headers; you doubt there is such a thing asthe SMTP envelope because email doesn’t involve paper.
• Despite having invented the FUSSP, your SMTP header and DSN reading skills
are so limited that when you send an objectionable message to two separate sites,you can’t tell which of one of them rejected it.
• You cannot name several potentially fatal flaws in the FUSSP.
• All you need to do to get the FUSSP implemented and deployed is to publish an
• You don’t recognize any significant difference between deploying and imple-
• You plan to publish an RFC mandating the FUSSP but have never heard of RFC
• Inventing the FUSSP did not require that you know the difference between RFC
821 and RFC 822 or that they have been replaced by RFC 2821 and RFC 2822.
• You don’t know the relevance of "consensus" or "IESG approval" to publishing
• You think all RFCs have the same standing.
• Spammers won’t ignore, subvert, or exploit the FUSSP if you publish it as an
• The FUSSP depends on spammers or mail recipients changing their behavior
• The FUSSP won’t be effective until it has been deployed at more than 60% of
SMTP servers and that’s not a problem.
• The FUSSP is easy to implement and deploy, but you have done neither.
• Your job is done after having explained the FUSSP to the IETF or The Industry.
• Programmers will drop everything to implement the FUSSP.
• You think that a violation of an RFC by an SMTP client or server is good and
sufficient reason to reject all mail from the system’s domain.
• You know that SMTP has no authentication and have never heard of SMTP-
• You know that the failure of SMTP servers to authenticate the SMTP clients of
strangers is a major bug in SMTP instead of an expression of a primary designgoal.
• Despite discovering the FUSSP, you don’t know the meanings of MTA, MUA,
SMTP server, SMTP client, or submission server.
• The FUSSP requires a small number of central servers to handle certificates, act
as "pull servers" for bulk mail, account for mail charges, or whatever, but that isnot a problem.
• The FUSSP requires that anyone wanting to send mail obtain a certificate that
will be checked by all SMTP servers.
• The FUSSP involves certificates, but there is no barrier to spammers buying
• You know that certifying that a user legitimately claims a name and has never
used some other name is cheap and easy.
• You have found that most Internet users would be happy to pay $5/month to
avoid spam and do not know the prices of anti-virus software or data.
• The FUSSP involves ISPs issuing certificates to users and the ISPs that today
don’t terminate the accounts of spammers and don’t investigate prospective cus-tomers enough to refuse service to spammers today will refuse FUSSP certifi-cates to known spammers and revoke the certificates of new spammers.
• You have never heard of RFC 2554 or RFC 2487 and the FUSSP includes fixing
• The FUSSP involves replacing SMTP.
• You routinely send single "LARTS" or reports of single examples of objection-
able mail to more than two dozen addressees.
• Your definition of spam differs significantly from "unsolicited bulk email."
• The existence of this list is proof that the spam problem will never be solved by
• You frequently use math, statistics, and information theory, and almost as fre-
quently notice people hiding grins or stifling laughs.
• None of the preceding apply to you except some that are neither ironic nor silly.
• You think this list is about you.
Contact [email protected]
The operator of this website will not give, sell, or otherwise transfer addresses
maintained by this website to any other party for the purposes of initiating, or enablingothers to initiate, electronic messages.
Appendix B: Your company advocates
Found at http://yro.slashdot.org/comments.pl?sid=91428&cid=7870084
approach to fighting spam. Your idea will not work. Here is why it won’t work.
(One or more of the following may apply to your particular idea, and it may have otherflaws which used to vary from state to state before a bad federal law was passed.)
) Spammers can easily use it to harvest email addresses
) Mailing lists and other legitimate email uses would be affected
) No one will be able to find the guy or collect the money
) It is defenseless against brute force attacks
) It will stop spam for two weeks and then we’ll be stuck with it
) Requires too much cooperation from spammers
) Requires immediate total cooperation from everybody at once
) Many email users cannot afford to lose business or alienate potential employers
) Spammers don’t care about invalid addresses in their lists
) Anyone could anonymously destroy anyone else’s career or business
Specifically, your plan fails to account for
) Lack of centrally controlling authority for email
) Ease of searching tiny alphanumeric address space of all email addresses
) Public reluctance to accept weird new forms of money
) Huge existing software investment in SMTP
) Susceptibility of protocols other than SMTP to attack
) Willingness of users to install OS patches received by email
) Armies of worm riddled broadband-connected Windows boxes
) Eternal arms race involved in all filtering approaches
) Extreme stupidity on the part of people who do business with spammers
) Extreme stupidity on the part of people who do business with Microsoft
) Extreme stupidity on the part of people who do business with Yahoo
) Dishonesty on the part of spammers themselves
) Bandwidth costs that are unaffected by client filtering
and the following philosophical objections may also apply:
) Ideas similar to yours are easy to come up with, yet none have ever been shown
) Any scheme based on opt-out is unacceptable
) SMTP headers should not be the subject of legislation
) We should be able to talk about Viagra without being censored
) Countermeasures should not involve wire fraud or credit card fraud
) Countermeasures should not involve sabotage of public networks
) Countermeasures must work if phased in gradually
) Why should we have to trust you and your servers?
) Incompatiblity with open source or open source licenses
) Feel-good measures do nothing to solve the problem
) Temporary/one-time email addresses are cumbersome
) I don’t want the government reading my email
) Killing them that way is not slow and painful enough
Furthermore, this is what I think about you:
) Sorry dude, but I don’t think it would work.
) This is a stupid idea, and you’re a stupid company for suggesting it.
) Nice try, assh0le! I’m going to find out where you live and burn your house
Orthodontic Acquaintance Card Date _____________ Patient’s Name_________________________ Birthdate ____________________Age ____________ Address __________________________________________________________________________ Home Phone_______________Height______Weight ______ Referred by _____________________ Cell Phone________________ Email___________________________________________________ P
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