If spam false positives are inevitable, should we handle them better?
Right now, our mail system basically punts on handling false positives (non-spam detected as spam). The only thing that users can do about false positives is turn off SMTP time rejection (if they have it turned on) and then fish the mis-classified message out of their filters or our archive of all recent email they've gotten. If the message has already been rejected, the only thing that can be done is to get the sender to re-send it. And there's no way for users to see what messages have been rejected, so they can tell if some important email message has fallen victim to a false positive; instead we periodically get requests to check our logs.
My impression is that our mail system's behavior is not atypically bad, and instead that plenty of other mail systems behave in much the same way. It's pretty straightforward to see why, too; it would take significantly more work to engineer anything more than this, especially if you reject at SMTP time (and I think you want to, because that way at least people find out that their email hasn't gone through because of a false positive). But probably we should do better here, if only because this is a pain point for our users (it's one of the things that gets them to talk to us about our spam filtering).
(This is also probably required if we accept the idea that 'spam levels' may be a copout.)
In general, a mail system do things with potential false positives
from two sides. It can give the local receiving user some tools to
investigate situations, answering the question of 'did X try to
send me email and what happened to it', and perhaps also to retrieve
such mis-classified email. Retrieving email rejected at SMTP time
requires your mailer to save a copy of such email (at least for a
while), which means you need to defer rejections to
This opens up a complicated tangle of worms for messages sent to
multiple recipients (although they go away again if you mandate
that you only have one 'spam level' and
everyone gets it).
Your mailer can also give senders some tools they can use to cause false positive messages to get accepted anyway. You probably don't want to offer these tools to all senders; sure, most spammers aren't paying attention to you, but some spam (such as advance fee fraud attempts) does come from real human beings doing things to compromised mail systems by hand, and they might well take advantage of your generosity. However, if someone's regular correspondent has some email classified as spam, it's probably safe (and worthwhile) to offer them these tools. The odds are probably good that it's an accident as opposed to a compromised account with a human being at the other end to take advantage of you.
(There are a wide variety of options for how to let people psuh
messages through. You could do 'mail it to this special one-time
address', or 'include this magic header or
Subject marker', or
just 'visit this URL of ours to request that your email get delivered
anyway'. And I'm sure there's more. I have no idea which option
would work best, and SMTP-time rejection makes things complicated
because it's hard to give people much information.)
None of these are particularly easy to put together with off the shelf components, though, which for many places is probably going to make the entire issue moot. And maybe things should be left as they are for the straightforward reason that a low level of false positives just doesn't justify much sysadmin effort to improve the situation, especially if it requires a complicated bespoke custom solution.
(This is one of the entries where it turns out that I don't have any firm conclusions, just some rambling thoughts I want to write down.)
Comments on this page:Written on 05 September 2017.