WIRELESS SPAM - THE BIG CLEAN-UP
by Nicki Hayes, June 22, 2001
Junk mail has been doing its rounds ever since the existence of postal systems. Its electronic equivalent -
spam - has been a major problem in the world of the internet, introducing fatal viruses and wasted time
and costs. Now spam looks set to bring even worse perils to the wireless internet, and, as NTT DoCoMo
has recently discovered, it’s time to start the big clean-up. But, while good housekeeping is a great start,
it will not be enough once wireless devices become application-enabled... reports WDN
Unsolicited junk mail, or spam, distributed via mobile devices, will become a growing problem as the
wireless internet becomes more widely adopted and as more and more wireless devices capable of running
applications come to market. For, as sure as night follows day, spam follows critical mass. And as sure as
day follows night, virus-ridden spam, capable of spreading fatal bugs quicker and further than PCs will
ever be able to, will follow application-enabled wireless devices.
Imagine the effect of a virus as prevalent as the Love Bug in the wireless world. Given that mobile phones
are pretty much mission critical to us all in both our business and personal lives, even the threat of such a
bug could render wireless email services unusable. Add to this the fact that many service providers charge
wireless users for all data received - including spam - and it’s easy to see why such users are beginning to
demand a clean-up and why such providers are looking for ways to do so.
Indeed, NTT DoCoMo is beginning to pay for the effects of spam on its i-Mode user-base. In March
subscribers to this service topped the 20 million mark. This success made it increasingly attractive to
senders of unsolicited email, to such an extent that there has been a consumer backlash with calls for the
company to strengthen its protection against spam. It responded on Monday (19 June) with what seems to
be a number of new “housekeeping” services. According to a NTT DoCoMo press release the company
will take the following steps to strengthen its junk e-mail counter measures:
1) Provide i-mode users with up to 400 packets (equivalent to about 120 yen) per month of free
communication for sending/receiving e-mail and accessing the Internet via i-mode handsets (from August
1, 2001 tentatively). FOMA i-mode phones, however, will not apply.
2) Free access to the "i-Menu" i-mode page, which customers can use to change their i-mode e-mail
addresses, set e-mail blocking functions, etc. (from August 1, 2001 tentatively). The service will be
extended to FOMA i-mode users sometime in 2002.
3) Default e-mail usernames that contain random alphabetic and numeric characters, instead of using the
handset's phone number for the default username (from July 9, 2001, tentatively).
4) Total short-mail blocking-enables the user to block e-mail sent from short-mail addresses (from July 2,
5) Expansion of NTT DoCoMo i-mode center and telecommunications facilities to cope with the increasing
volume of junk e-mail. The company is also planning to set up a system to block mass-volume e-mails.
6) NTT DoCoMo will seek a court order to force companies to stop sending mass-volume junk e-mail via
the i-mode system.
7) NTT DoCoMo will also place more ads in broadcast and print media to inform the public about its junk
e-mail counter measures.In addition, more information will be provided through NTT DoCoMo's website
and i-mode portal, as well as fliers enclosed with monthly bills.
There’s a lot that other wireless operators and service providers could learn NTTDoCoMo’s new measures
and its existing housekeeping policy to help them prevent spam associated problems before they begin, but
the Japanese giant’s “good housekeeping” approach isn’t foolproof. Good housekeeping is the basis of any
security policy and while a comprehensive housekeeping policy was enough when wireless devices were
incapable of running applications, as more and more devices become application enabled, such an approach
will no longer be sufficient. Well aware of this, many anti-virus companies are looking into wireless spam
and virus filtering solutions. For wireless operators and their solution providers the availability of such
products will be a key factor for success in future months, according to Don Longueuil, wireless analyst
with Cahners In-Stat:
"Spam and viruses have the potential to become a tremendous problem on wireless networks. Not only
from fast growing messaging services such as SMS, but also from the huge growth in the number of people
who use mobile devices to access traditional mail systems,” he commented.
"It’s simple - the more satisfied the customer is with wireless messaging, the more they use it, which leads
to more revenue for the wireless operator. Operators should be very interested in stopping spam and virus
attacks affecting their customers."
CMG, a global leader in mobile messaging solutions, for one, has taken such advice to heart. They recently
announced a partnership with virus filtering company Brightmail. Brightmail produces systems that will
prevent unsolicited messages from entering the network.
"Mobile messaging grew over 400% last year and this, together with developing next generation networks,
will add even more high value traffic," said CMG's VP of sales and marketing Peter Maathuis. "We are
aligning ourselves with innovative companies such as Brightmail to enable mobile network operators the
ability to protect the growing revenue streams being built on mobile messaging applications."
While such solutions add value to housekeeping policies and are essential to minimizing the effects of
spam, they will still not be enough once application-enabled devices come to market introducing further
opportunities for the introduction of viruses. Indeed, PDAs such as PalmOS and WinCE devices are already
application-enabled and there will soon be a new set of smart phone devices arriving on the market too. In
fact, NTT DoCoMo has already announced such a device that will support Java. Once this device becomes
a reality the company may need to add an anti-virus tool to its armory too. I say “may” because Java has
some security built in. Java applications are normally only allowed to run in the safety of a “sand box”
environment unless they use trusted code that has been digitally signed, in which case security is built in
Several companies have already taken the initiative in the wireless anti-virus domain. Symantec has its
AntiVirus 2001 for the Palm OS. McAfee’s has VirusScan Wireless, which scans devices with the Palm,
Pocket PC, Windows CE, and Symbian EPOC operating systems. These are sure to be extended to other
operating systems too, and, as Mark Frauenfelder points out in his recent article about viruses on handheld
devices (see http://www.wirelessdevnet.com/newswire-less/thefeature03.html), you can bet other anti-virus
companies will soon follow suit and try to get in on the clean-up too.
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About the author:
Nicki Hayes is a freelance writer and corporate communications consultant specialising in business to business internet issues. She has contributed editorial to a number of publications including Unstrung.com, Guardian Online, Financial Times, Banking & Financial Training, eAI Journal and Secure Computing. Nicki is also the European correspondent for The Wireless Developer Network. Nicki is based in Dublin, Ireland and also has a base in Cambridge, UK. Through her consultancy, Hayes-Singh Associates, she has access to a number of technical writers and PR consultants throughout Ireland and the UK.
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