Friday, July 23, 2021

Email is broken --- the spammers won

 I am an old man. I am convinced email a superior medium for person to person information exchange. It is text based, so you don't need special hardware to use it, it can still transport various media formats and it is inter-operational, you are not tied to one company offering a service but thanks to a long list of RFCs starting with number 822 everybody can run their own service.  Via GPG or S/MIME you can even add somewhat decent encryption and authentication (at least for the body of the message) even though that is not optimal since historically it came later.

But the real advantage is on the client side: You have threading, you have the option to have folders to store your emails, you can search through them, you can set up filters so routine stuff does not clog up your inbox. And when things go really pear shaped (as they tend to do every few years), you can still recover your data from a text file on your hard drive.

This is all opposed to the continuous Now of messengers where already yesterday's message has scrolled up never to be seen again. But the young folks tend to prefer those and I cannot see any reason those would be preferable (except maybe that you get notifications on your phone). But up to now, it was still an option to say to our students "if you want to get all relevant information, check your email, it will be there".

But today, I think, this is finally over. The spammers won.

Over the last months of the pandemic, I already had to realise, mailing lists are harder and harder to use. As far as I can tell, nobody offers decent mailing lists on the net (at least without too much cost and with reasonable data protection ambitions), probably because those would immediately be used by spammers. So you have to run your own. For the families of our kid's classes at school and for daycare, to spread information that could no longer be posted on physical notice boards, I tried to set up lists on mailman like we used to do it on one of my hosted servers. Oh, what a pain. There are so many hoops you have to jump through so the messages actually end up in people's inboxes. For some major email providers (I am looking at you hosteurope) there is little chance unless the message's sender is in the recipient's address book for example. And yes, I have set up my server correctly, with reverse DNS etc working.

But now, it's application season again. We have received over 250 applications for the TMP master program and now I have to inform applicants about their results. The boundary conditions is that I want to send an individual mail to everybody  that contains their name and I want to digitally sign it so applicants know it is authentic and not sent by some prankster impersonating me (that had happened in the past, seriously). And I don't want to send those manually.

So I have a perl script (did I mention I am old), that reads the applicants' data from a database, composes the message with the appropriate template, applies a GPG signature and sends it off to the next SMTP server.

In the past, I had already learned that inside the university network, you have to sleep 10 seconds after each message as every computer that sends emails at a higher rate is considered taken over by some spammers and automatically disconnected from the network for 30 minutes.

This year, I am sending from the home office and as it turns out, some of my messages never make it to the recipients. There is of course no error message to me (thanks spammers) but the message seems to be silently dropped. It's not in the inbox and also cannot be found in the spam folder. Just gone.

I will send paper letters as well (those are required for legal reasons anyway) with a similar script and thanks to TeX being text based on the input side. But is this really the answer for 2021? How am I supposed to inform people I have not (yet) met from around the world in a reliable way? 

I am lost.

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