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An anti-challenge-response Xmas linkfest

As all right-thinking people know by now, Challenge-response spam filtering is broken and abusive, since it simply shifts the work of filtering spam out of your email, onto innocent third-parties — either your legitimate correspondents, people on mailing lists you read, or even random people you have never heard of (due to spam blowback).

I’ve ranted about this in the past, but I’m not alone in this opinion — and frequently find myself explaining it. To avoid repeating myself, here’s a canonical collection of postings from around the web on this topic.

Description: This “selfish” method of spam filtering replies to all email with a “challenge” – a message only a living person can (theoretically) respond to. There are several problems with this method which have been well known for many years.

  1. Does not scale: If everyone used this method, nobody would ever get any mail.
  2. Annoying: Many users refuse to reply to the challenge emails, don’t know what they are or don’t trust them.
  3. Ineffective: Because of confusion about these emails, many of them are confirmed by people who did not trigger them. This results in the original malicious email being delivered.
  4. Selfish: This is the problem we are mainly concerned with. By using challenge/response filtering, you are asking innumerable third parties to receive your challenge emails just so that a relatively few legitimate ones get through to the intended recipient.

C-R systems in practice achieve an unacceptably high false-positive rate (non-spam treated as spam), and may in fact be highly susceptible to false-negatives (spam treated as non-spam) via spoofing.

Effective spam management tools should place the burden either on the spammer, or, at the very least, on the person receiving the benefits of the filtering (the mail recipient). Instead, challenge-response puts the burden on, at best, a person not directly benefitting, and quite likely (read on) a completely innocent party. The one party who should be inconvenienced by spam consequences ¿ the spammer ¿ isn’t affected at all.

Worse: C-R may place the burden on third parties either inadvertantly (via spoofed sender spam or virus mail), or deliberately (see Joe Job, below). Such intrusions may even result in subversion of the C-R system out of annoyance. Many recent e-mail viruses spoof the e-mail sender, including Klez, Sobig variants, and others.

The collateral damage from widely used C/R systems, even with implementations that avoid the stupid bugs, will destroy usable e-mail. [jm: in fairness, this was written in 2003.]

Challenge systems have effects a lot like spam. In both cases, if only a few people use them they’re annoying because they unfairly offload the perpetrator’s costs on other people, but in small quantities it’s not a big hassle to deal with. As the amount of each goes up, the hassle factor rapidly escalates and it becomes harder and harder for everyone else to use e-mail at all.

I’m skeptical of CR as a response to email. If you’re the first on your block to adopt CR, and if nobody else uses anti-spam technology, then CR might provide you some modest benefit. But it¿s hard to see how CR can be widely successful in a world where most people use some kind of spam defense.

If these systems are so brain-dead as to not bother adding my address to the whitelist when the user sends me e-mail, I have serious trouble understanding why anyone is using them.

Is it just me? Is this too hard to figure out?

Anyway, there’s another 5 minutes I’ll never get back. It’s too bad there’s no mail header to warn me that “this message is from a TDMA user”, because then I’d be able to procmail ’em right to /dev/null where they belong.


This bullshit is not going to “solve” the spam problem, people. If that’s your solution, please let me opt out. Forever.

C/R slows down and impedes communication by placing unwanted barriers between you and your clients/suppliers.

If you must insist on using some form of C/R please make sure that you whitelist my address before you contact me as I will not reply to challenges.

We will not answer any challenges generated in response to our mailing list postings. Thus, if you’re using a challenge-response system and not receiving TidBITS, you’ll need to figure that out on your own. Also, if you send us a personal note and we receive a challenge to our reply, we may or may not respond to it, depending on our workload at the time. uses a very broken method of anti-spam. Everytime someone sends an email message to one of their members, they send back a verification message, asking the original sender to click a link before they will allow the message through. These messages are themselves a form of spam, and the resulting back-scatter of these messages is altogether bad for the Internet, the UOL member, and all of the UOL member’s contacts. UOL is aware of the complaints against them, and they refuse to correct the issue, claiming that their members love the service.

I hate C/R systems. With a passion. I absolutely will not respond to them. They go in the trash. I don’t get them very often but I get them more and more. I think they have the potential to seriously damage email communication as we know it. And I’m not alone in this opinion.