False Positives: Spam's Casualty of War Costing Billions

IT workers are fighting every day to keep spam out of their corporate networks. They'reenlisting black lists. They're installing filters. They're educating users.

And while the spam continues to flood in despite their best efforts, another problem islurking in the shadows. Legitimate email -- important email -- isn't getting in when itshould. Business propositions, partner contacts, resumes... they're all getting swept awayby the same tools that are filtering out the spam.

And industry analysts say money is being lost, customers are being lost and keyopportunities are being missed because our best-laid spam efforts are mistakenly throwingthe baby out with the bath water. Blocked legitimate email, or false positives, is costingU.S. businesses roughly $3.5 billion this year alone, according to a new study from SanFrancisco-based Ferris Research Inc.

Analysts say false positives are increasingly becoming the flip side of spam.

''Of great importance to corporate is that 70 percent of people have not gotten email thatwas expected,'' says Vincent Schiavone, president of Philadelphia-based ePrivacy Group Inc.''When it comes to blocked email, the consumer is inconvenienced. The enterprise could belosing an expensive deal... When you send a business-to-business email, you don't need itcaught in a spam filter. That stops business. False positives damage business.''

And that damage is sometimes overlooked in the heated battle against spam, say analysts.Spam is more than a constant nuisance. It overruns email systems. It wastes workers time,and it brings porn and viruses into the company. When business executives are loudlycomplaining to IT these days, they're often complaining about spam.

So IT works, struggles, to keep spam out of their system. If a few legitimate emails areblocked in the fight, well, that's just a casualty of war.

But, analysts warn, it's an expensive casualty -- one that most companies may not be able toafford to make.

''You're damned if you do, damned if you don't,'' says Sara Radicati, president and CEO ofThe Radicati Group, Inc., a Palo Alto, Calif.-based market research and consulting firmspecializing in messaging issues. ''We're all in the information business really. If youlose an important piece of information that your competitors get, you lose competitiveadvantage. You could lose deals. It could lead to major disconnects with clients. Therecould be a lot of losses.''

Radicati says there is not fixed rate of false positives when it comes to filteringtechnology. The rate varies with each individual product. She notes, however, that it'sgenerally accepted that most filtering software has a false positive rate of between 1percent and 10 percent.

Phil Goldman, CEO and founder of Los Altos, Calif.-based Mailblocks Inc., a personal emailservice company, says IT managers need to be aware that the cost of missing an email is muchgreater than the cost of inadvertently reading spam.

''IT managers are extremely concerned about it,'' says Goldman. ''If an email is lost, whois going to get blamed? It's the IT manager. They're caught between a rock and a hard place.If they turn down spam protection, they bear the brunt of a lot of spam coming through andthe bandwidth use and the productivity loss. But if they block out the spam and lose emails,it could be even worse. Any message could be a mission critical message.''

Analysts say that's why many IT managers have chosen to go easy on spam. More offers of wildporn, hair regrowth tonics and body enhancers get through to users' inboxes, but at leastthey're not missing the big emails.

''Sadly, we talk to a lot of firms that say they'd rather put up with spam than losepotential business,'' says Radicati. ''They'd rather have employees hit delete 20 or 30times than lose important information.''

And Radicati says it's not an easy problem to deal with. When it comes to eliminating spambut eliminating false positives, as well, there aren't a lot of solutions out there yet.

''Until the technology improves, there aren't a lot of options,'' she adds. ''Right now, theproducts out there that block spam have false positives. There are some solutions that letyou go in and look at what's been rejected so you can recover something. But that takes up alot of time. Then it becomes someone's job to sift through it... And what we hear fromeverybody about white lists is that they don't work very well. If you know everyone who isemailing you, then it's fine. But what about new business and emails coming from people youjust don't know yet.''

Ferris Research's Chris Williams says IT managers should keep in mind that while falsepositives are costing American businesses about $3.5 billion this year, spam is costing them$10 billion.

''False positives is a problem but it's still not as expensive a problem as spam,'' henotes. The answer, he says, is to try to find a solution that addresses both issues. Butbeware that it will be hard to find.

''There are many different ways anti-spam software can be implemented,'' says Williams. ''Wecan delete all mail we think is spam at the server. That's probably the wrong approach forpeople sensitive to false positives. A better approach for them is to quarantine it into ajunk folder so people who really care about their mail can go and check it. IT managers needto pay attention to the false positive rate of these products. It's not just about getting aproduct that blocks 100 percent of spam, but how much legitimate email is blocked as well.That just isn't a good trade off.''

Mailbocks' Goldman says better solutions will be coming down the road as more and morecompanies start to worry about false positives, as well as spam. The more they worry, themore they complain to their software vendors.

''It's part of a more general and mature look at spam and anti-spam,'' says Goldman. ''Itwill go beyond 'Did I get spam or not?'. It will include other factors, like false positivesand management overhead.''