Home > Musings, Technical > Getting angry about false positives

Getting angry about false positives

Tuesday, September 4th, 2007

Sometimes I’m baffled that seemingly minor annoyances trigger a lot of anger and frustration.   Example: I’ve had four instances recently where over-zealous anti-spam systems have blocked legitimate communication.  My frustration has two sources: 1. That somebody thought it acceptable to have false positives in a spam-screening system, and 2. That, in most cases, attempts to feedback my concerns were met with a wall of irresponsibility.

In one example www.USA.NET customer support said that the fact they bounce messages from www.shaw.ca (with 2 million subscribers) was out of their control as it was the responsibility of www.mail-abuse.com.  No, USA.NET, you have chosen to use a service that is not reliable.  And you’ve stated your irresponsibility by blaming others for your own actions.  Customer support at shaw.ca was disinterested, and did not want the data they’d need to request their offending IP address be removed.  The fingers point in circles.

Another example is just as silly.  A company was doing it’s own screening using a variety of sources, and http://www.au.sorbs.net/ was blocking www.shaw.ca.  Fortunately a friend was an Executive with that company, and at my request they simply dropped using that site.  The explanation by SORBS of their service claims “a false positive rate so small that it usually does not register.”  Hmm, well this one registered.

The third example I’ll keep confidential but was caused by overenthusiastic list management.

The fourth example is a good news story.  My ISP (www.server101.com) blocked a legit IP address.  I complained, they responded quickly, and were good enough to turn off all their filtering for my email addresses.  This is not a service they publicly advertised, but did this on request.  As a result I get many spam messages daily on a dozen email aliases.  And hitting “Delete” is indeed trivial.

With the reality of creative and fast-moving spammers, I understand it must be very frustrating to have users clamour for no spam.  Undoubtedly folks at anti-spam sites like mail-abuse and SORBS work very hard to clean up email for users.  And here’s my message to ISPs: it’s trivial for users to hit delete, it’s a PITA to have legit messages rejected.  The acceptable false-positive level is zero.  That’s 0.0.  Ask yourself:  are you addicted to a game of oneupmanship with the spammers, or attempting to serve users?  My message to you: DO NOT BLOCK LEGIT IPs!

The root cause is that foolish 5% of Internet users that buy products from spam messages.  Those users keep the spammers sending their junk.  But in this case the cure is worse than the disease.   So it makes sense that I’m angry that  my communication is impeded by overzealous individuals.  I’m no longer baffled. 😉

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Categories: Musings, Technical