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Email authentication is not anti-spam

There’s a common misconception about spam, email, and email authentication; Matt Cutts has been the most recent promulgator, asking ‘Where’s my authenticated email?’, in which various members of the comment thread consider this as an anti-spam question.

Here’s the thing — email these days is authenticated. If you send a mail from GMail, it’ll be authenticated using both SPF and DomainKeys. However, this alone will not help in the fight against spam.

Put simply — knowing that a mail was sent by ‘jm3485 at’, is not much better than knowing that it was sent by IP address, unless you know that you can trust ‘jm3485 at’, too. Spammers can (and do) authenticate themselves.

Authentication is just a step along the road to reputation and accreditation, as Eric Allman notes:

Reputation is a critical part of an overall anti-spam, anti-phishing system but is intentionally outside the purview of the DKIM base specification because how you do reputation is fundamentally orthogonal to how you do authentication.

Conceptually, once you have established an identity of an accountable entity associated with a message you can start to apply a new class of identity-based algorithms, notably reputation. … In the longer term reputation is likely to be based on community collaboration or third party accreditation.

As he says, in the long term, several vendors (such as Return Path and Habeas) are planning to act as accreditation bureaus and reputation databases, undoubtedly using these standards as a basis. Doubtless Spamhaus have similar plans, although they’ve not mentioned it.

But there’s no need to wait — in the short term, users of SpamAssassin and similar anti-spam systems can run their own personal accreditation list, by whitelisting frequent correspondents based on their DomainKeys/DKIM/SPF records, using whitelist_from_spf, whitelist_from_dkim, and whitelist_from_dk.

Hopefully more ISPs and companies will deploy outbound SPF, DK and DKIM as time goes on, making this easier. All three technologies are useful for this purpose (although I prefer DKIM, if pushed to it ;).

It’s worth noting that the upcoming SpamAssassin 3.2.0 can be set up to run these checks upfront, “short-circuiting” mail from known-good sources with valid SPF/DK/DKIM records, so that it isn’t put through the lengthy scanning process.

That’s not to say Matt doesn’t have a point, though. There are questions about deployment — why can’t I already run “apt-get install postfix-dkim-outbound-signer” to get all my outbound mail transparently signed using DKIM signatures? Why isn’t DKIM signing commonplace by now?