UT researchers work to reduce spam emails, increase online security

Julia Brouillette

A group of UT faculty members and graduate students have teamed up with UT’s Center for Research on Economic Commerce (CREC) to expose the companies that send out millions of spam emails every day. 

SpamRankings.net, a website launched by the University’s Center for Research on Economic Commerce, displays rankings of companies by number of outgoing spam messages generated from roughly 18,000 U.S. and international organizations. The project creates models for email providers to reduce spam and is funded by two grants from the National Science Foundation, totaling approximately $1 million.

Head researcher John Quarterman said UT students, in particular, are at a high risk for identity theft because of spam.

“UT has had a big problem with student information being leaked to the outside world because of bad security,” Quarterman said. “Spam is getting out that may contain private information, like your identity.”

Quarterman said the easiest way for students to prevent spam from entering their inboxes is to maintain up-to-date software.

“Make sure you have all the updates to your operating system,” Quarterman said. “Antivirus software is worth running as well.”

According to Andrew Whinston, the center’s director and a management information systems professor, students are susceptible to deceptive links as they surf the Internet. Once the link is clicked, malicious software enters the computer system and new spam is generated. 

“You have to be careful and not go to websites on the Internet that you are not really familiar with, or websites that are not authenticated in some way,” Whinston said.

Whinston said preventing spam starts with businesses and their employees.

“Spam email, we argue, is a clear sign that the company generating it has weak security,” Whinston said. “Companies should train their staff to be much more vigilant … and invest in spam filters that can block spambots that are trying to infect corporate computing systems.”

Whinston said spam is more than just annoying clutter — he said spam poses a serious security threat to companies and individuals alike.

“This is something that has real, negative impacts on society and we are trying to see what we can do to reduce it,” Whinston said.

Students and faculty from the McCombs School of Business, department of economics, department of computer science and the Cockrell School of Engineering are also researching the issue.

UT graduate and contributor Qian Tang said the project has faced some hefty challenges. Researchers struggle to make the information they expose understandable to the average email user, Tang said.

“Technical terms are too complicated for average users to understand and interpret,” Tang said.

Tang also said the team must closely monitor the reactions of computer hackers.

“Hackers may react to the exposed info, and they might switch their targets,” Tang said.