I feel like my Bayesian spam filter is winning the arms race against spammers, or at least making the filtering process managable. One of the side effects of having my mail presorted is that I can evaluate which of my email addresses are attracting the most attention. Over the past few months I’ve been watching this statistic very closely, and found that two addresses produce an overwhelming majority of my garbage: mit.edu and uchicago.edu. The irony there is that I never use either address. Where are they harvesting my email from? My best guess is finger.
While companies tend to use more sophisticated directory systems, most universities use finger as an open white pages for students, faculty and administration. In the stone age of the internet, it was ostensibly the only way to find a person’s email address, and it still remains as the most effective means of tracking down a user of an academic network. In most cases, all one needs is a first or last name and the university they work for. On most unix systems, simply typing email@example.com will return a list of entries in the host.edu database matching "name."
This is a veritable gold mine of data for spammers: current students that will be graduating at some point, starting families, and needing loads of xanax, valium and viagra to cope. All the spammer has to do to tap into the finger database is know a first or last name, query the server, and take the email address. Or, alternatively you can just finger all of the names, ranked in descending order of popularity thanks to the 1990 census statistics. Since Cameron is the 336th most common name, it’s no surprise that I’ve been getting a flood of email from my fingerable addresses.
MIT does provide one level of indirection by giving each user an alias, mine being C-marlow. If you turn around and finger C-marlow at mit.edu, MIT responds with all of my contact information. I am in no way a privacy pundit, I just don’t appreciate getting unsolicited email. At this stage in the game, it seems to me that finger must die. Schools that still want to provide a directory service should do it through a web email interface, obscuring the addresses of students and employees. Otherwise they threaten to render their email addresses useless by serving them up wholesale to spammers.