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Thread: Internet Security/Malware/Spam

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Please, please don't throw me into the briar patch, Brer Fox!

The E-mail Technology Trap


Chronogical Blog Entries:



Date: Wed, 22 Jul 2009 22:00:14 +1000

Email has undergone a steady transformation over the years. However the original Simple Mail Transport Protocol (SMTP) has remained basically the same. It is still consists of a block of headers, followed by a message body. Addition of features like the MIME encoded encapsulation of attachments and HTML email built on the existing protocol so that servers would not have to be altered.

Although the underlying protocol has remained the same there has been a significant change in the Mail programs which present emails to computer users. There has been a trend towards GUI interfaces and the inclusion of various features and options which go beyond the original intent of SMTP.

The most popular Mail program, Microsoft Outlook has applied the Microsoft philosophy of "dumbing down" the user interface and taken it to extraordinary new heights. Along with this dumbing down, there have been a large number of "features" that previously would have been carried out by a browser.

All of these "features" hide the basics of SMTP from the unfortunate long suffering customer. This was to give the impression that email was not a composite conglomerate of various distinct components, but a seamless protocol served up by Microsoft corporation. By supposedly making it easier for customers, the salespeople and marketeers have argued, they are improving the user experience. Rather then having to learn how to save a file and then open it with their browser or the word processor or the spreadsheet program - Today's users merely have to "click" and everything is taken care of, in an almost magical manner - by the marvelous Mail User Agent (MUA) known as Microsoft Outlook.

Users, it seems can be and have been trained to click on just about anything. Unfortunately, such users, who don't know how to "save" an attachment and then "open" the attachment with the appropriate software, are exactly the sort of users who should not be clicking happily on everything in their inbox in such a dangerous Pavlovian manner.

All this has lead to Outlook becoming the single largest threat to individual security, surpassing even the browser as the most common vector for malware. Unlike other new technologies which have been adopted widely and have changed our lives considerably, very few citizens seem willing to "lift the hood", "kick the tires" or even read the manual (RTFM), when it comes to SMTP, one of the simplest and easiest protocols in use today.

And if anyone wishes he had read the manual, it would surely have to be Malcolm Turnbull, leader of Her Majesty's (Australian) Opposition. The antics of our politicians in Australia are often exaggerated and over-theatrical. However a month ago Malcolm Turnbull the newly anointed merchant banker genius who was supposed to lead the Liberal part out of the political wilderness seemed on the verge of breaking through the defensive ranks of the Labor government, which was clearly struggling with their ETS (Emission Trading Scheme). His main rival in his own party, Peter Costello was departing, and Malcolm Turnbull had just learned that the Treasurer had possibly been a bit too generous with some of his mates from the old hometown. Malcolm and his opposition began to circle the Queensland clique like sharks around a life-boat adrift in stormy climate changing waters.

Surely, Malcolm Turnbull's political career seemed to be on the verge of apotheosis.

And then came a remarkable reversal of fortune.

As brilliant and knowledgeable as he is about business, finance and legal matters, there is a glaring black-hole in Malcolm Turnbull's knowledge of email. And it is a gap in most people's knowledge.

Malcolm's Inbox
Cartoon By Dyson ("The Age").

Now, Malcolm Turnbull finds himself fighting off criticism from the troglodytes within his own party, and struggling to build consensus regarding environmental concerns in a "new" Liberal party and reconcile it with his high finance background. And the slippery slope seems to have started from his email inbox.

At the time, your humble blogger was somewhat bemused to learn that there was really a person, in Canberra, named "Godwin Grech". His role, now largely forgotten by the media, in the whole bizarre Utegate affair, seems eerily akin to that played by "James Wormwold" in Graham Greene's farcical spoof about espionage ("Our Man In Havana"). Although Godwin's name sounds more like something invented by Kurt Vonnegut for one of his more madcap socio-political satires.

Like a lot of people in the world, the unfortunate leader of the Opposition must be wondering how on earth did we let ourselves get into this technology trap? Certainly if the document had been written on paper, as an ordinary letter, a statutory declaration or some other traditional legal document, the leader of the opposition would have been able to apply his renowned legal talents to a forensic analysis of the contents. The email sneaked in under his radar because of this SMTP blind spot.

And your humble blogger also is mystified about how so many became so dependent on so little software written by so few, based on a technology that is relatively simple and yet now lacks so much transparency (especially - it seems - when the software is created and marketed by Microsoft)?


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