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Email Security Under The Microscope

Securing your email is a lot more than simply backing up your email resource and using - if possible - multiple layers of IT security software. It's about constantly reviewing your email security arrangements.

This fact was brought home to this writer at the Infosecurity Europe event last Spring, when Richard Cox, the CIO of Spamhaus (opens in new tab) explained that, whilst the major ISPs are doing their bit on the security side, filtering our suspect email before it even reaches other ISPs, mobile-originated spam and malicious email are a growing problem.

According to Cox, cellular service providers and other companies offering mobile Internet services, do not normally have the resources to track down and lock out those accounts - pre-paid SIM cards - that are generating spammed and malware-laden email.

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The problem is just as bad in those countries which do not have 3G networks, as, in Nigeria, for example, he says, spammers are quite happy to send their spam via a humble GSM connection.

And since the use of a pre-pay SIM card allows spammers to carry out their trade on a near untraceable basis, mobile-originated spam is quietly becoming a major problem for all types of ISPs, and not just those in the mobile communications space.

"We are working with a large number of ISPs, Internet regulatory bodies and other agencies, but the resources of mobile data service providers - the cellular carriers - are fully stretched when it comes to this problem," he explained.

The problem is made worse, he says, by the fact that many spamming operations are trans-national in nature, with spam that ostensibly comes from one country is often generated in another country, and aimed at Internet users in a third country.

Fortunately, it's possible for business users of email to protect themselves this rising tide of spam and malware-infected email as, according to Paul Wood, an email security analyst with MessageLabs (opens in new tab), it's relatively easy to automate the email filtering process.

This is usually achieved through the use of appliance-based security technology analysing and stepping through the analysis process at high speed.

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The MessageLabs' modus operandi in this regard, says Wood, is to adopt a five-stage real-time analysis process that steps through a number of stages as various IT threats are encountered when monitoring an organisation's emails as they stream in - and out.

The first stage is to bandwidth throttle any suspicious IP traffic to give the organisation's IT security software a chance to analyse the suspect messages and/or attachments in real time.

If the email is found to be suspect, but does not conform to known infection signatures, then the message's header can be analysed and, if an infection etc., is found, the email can be quarantined.

The third stage in the analysis process is to perform user management and address validation, with Messagelabs' security applying a number of automated checks to verify whether the message comes from a source previously known to be dangerous.

The fourth stage, he explained, is to apply the MessageLabs anti-malware and anti-hacking analysis program for anything suspicious that has passed through the first three analysis stages, but still looks potentially problematic.

The fifth and final stage involves the application of MessageLabs' Skeptic technology (opens in new tab) to the messages, allowing the security software to weed out anything that still looks suspicious for later, manual, analysis by the IT staff concerned.

How effective can good email security software be? Just ask Everton Football club, which signed a deal last November with Webroot (opens in new tab) to protect the club's IT systems against the vagaries of spam and malware infested email.

According to Steve Fell, head of ICT with Everton, being a Premier League football club and a household name in the UK means that Everton is a prime target for spam and malware.

The spam and malware emails, he explained, are usually delivered constantly in the guise of marketing pitches and other personal communications. And, he said, as few as one percent of the football club's emails are actually legitimate business messages.

Fell said that, before Webroot's technology was installed, some forms of communication simply couldn't get through, "and if those emails are for the chairman, that clearly isn't good," he noted.

"Ensuring the flow of legitimate emails is key, especially during the player transfer season when an extraordinary amount of traffic comes through on the last day. Now, I'm delighted to say - the email queues have disappeared", he added.

Fell said that the new IT security technology solving spam and malware email problems has allowed the football club to improve its customer service levels, as it gets a lot of emails requesting tickets for football games.

"If any of these are blocked, like they used to be, we'd be looking at possible lost revenue. Customer service is paramount and now we are confident that we capture every customer enquiry and don't look unresponsive - an important part of preserving our brand image", he said.

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Since 1988, Aberdeens research has been helping corporations worldwide become best-in-class. having benchmarked the performance of more than 644,000 companies, Aberdeen is uniquely positioned to provide organisations with the facts that matter- the facts that enable companies to get ahead and drive results. thats why our research is relied on by more than 2.2million readers in over 40 countries 90% of the fortune 1000, and 93%of the technology 500.

Well-financed email threat creators persist in propogating ever more sophisticated and potentially lethal attacks through the estimated 62 trillion spam messages sent last year. Stressful economic times strain budgets and the staff responsible for for email security. Growing numbers of former employees leave their former employers at higher risk. Add the rising value of sensitive data in a desperate market, and we have a set of trends that all point to critical reasons organisations cannot ignore their email vulnerabilities. this report highlights ways best-in-class organizations harden themselves against threats from email.

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