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Tsunami warning hits the spam barrier

Automated system filters warnings as junk e-mail

By Michael Crawford
July 7, 2005 12:00 PM ET

Computerworld Australia - SYDNEY, Australia -- The first live run of the Indian Ocean tsunami warning system earlier this month produced an unexpected result for some users of Apache's SpamAssassin.
Subscribers to the automated e-mail warning system, which sent out an alert for an earthquake off Northern Sumatra that rated 6.7 on the Richter scale, found that the tsunami warning notification deferred as spam.
The problem arises if the open-source filter is installed straight out of the box; the messages, usually written in uppercase, are not considered spam. But for anyone who locks down the spam filter, SpamAssassin categorizes the e-mail as spam due to a combination of uppercase text in a clear-cut format forwarded by a hidden sender.
With the spam filters locked down, the warning message -- written in the original in uppercase letters as "THERE IS A VERY SMALL POSSIBILITY OF A DESTRUCTIVE LOCAL TSUNAMI IN THE INDIAN OCEAN" -- rates a spam score of 3.7 out of 10.
Tom Worthington, a visiting computer science fellow at the Australian National University, said anything that rates over five is considered to be spam, and a 10 is absolutely spam.
"There is also a general concern that the more words the message uses will make the rating go even higher," he said.
"The indicators on the message are typical of what spam software uses. If you work in a government agency, there is less of a concern because the system is set up to receive the warnings. But there is always the risk that computer support will install a spam filter for mail and these messages won't get through," Worthington said.
Put simply, these dire warnings of a natural disaster could be blocked because they could be regarded as spam.
"With these sorts of messages, you want to make sure they get through. The other interesting thing is previous tests had this exact problem with the spam filters," Worthington said. "The tsunami messages are very official and use clear-cut wording, which is setting off the spam filters. They need to change format, because part of the problem is that spammers also try to make messages look official."
Worthington said he has since been in contact with the Japan Meteorological Agency, which issues bulletins for the Indian Ocean, and with the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization and has requested that they redesign the e-mails.

Reprinted with permission from Computerworld Australia Story copyright 2012 Computerworld New Australia. All rights reserved.
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