At Michigan State, Student E-mail in Same Class as Phishers and Scammers

By August 18, 2010

A brief article in Michigan State University’s (MSU’s) student paper The State News carries some interesting tidbits about MSU’s technology services department, namely its proficiency in keeping "spam" e-mail messages out of MSU’s computer network. The State News writes:

Each day, MSU’s Academic Technology Services, or ATS, mail system blocks about 400,000 junk mail – or spam – messages from reaching users’ mailboxes, ATS Communications Manager Katherine Ball said in an e-mail.

And with each passing day, the system processes about 1 million messages that have been sent or received, a majority of which are spam messages.

I imagine that many of those 400,000 spam messages are phishing schemes such as this one, which landed in one of my colleagues’ inboxes last night:

FROM: DIPLOMATIC AGENT

I am a Diplomat named Mr. Dom May, mandated to deliver your inheritance to you in your country of residence.
The funds total US$7.5 Million and you were made the beneficiary of these funds  by a benefactor whose details will be revealed to you after handing  over the funds to you in accordance with the Agreement I signed with the benefactor when he enlisted my assistance in delivering the funds to you.
I am presently at JFK Airport in the United States of America and before I can deliver the funds to you, you have to reconfirm the following Information so as to ensure that I am dealing with the right person
1. Full Name
2. Residential
3. Age
4. Occupation   
5. Direct Telephone
After verification of the information with what I have on file, I shall contact you so that we can make arrangements on the exact time I will be Bringing your package to your residential address.

Send the requested information so that we can proceed.
Regards
Mr. Dom May

The MSU community, I’m sure, is quite happy not to be deluged with e-mails from "Dom May" and his ilk. But unfortunately, MSU’s current bulk e-mail policies do little to distinguish suspicious (not to mention appallingly spelled) advertisements for male enhancement drugs and dispatches from deposed dictators and exiled diplomats from the sincere efforts of MSU students trying to bring attention to matters of public concern.

Just ask Kara Spencer, who in 2008 was found guilty of spamming after circulating an e-mail raising awareness of an impending change in MSU’s academic calendar to a carefully selected group of 391 faculty members.

The State News notes one MSU professor’s observation that MSU’s e-mail network has over the years become increasingly central to the routines of MSU community members, further underscoring its importance as a vehicle for transmitting information and opinions about the issues of the day. This central hub for student speech, however, is straitjacketed by MSU’s exceedingly harsh "Appropriate Use of MSU E-mail" policy. MSU enacted this policy after having to back down in Spencer’s case under pressure from FIRE, and the revised policy is actually much harsher than the old one.

 
The revised policy defines bulk e-mail as "The transmission of an identical or substantially identical e-mail message within a 48-hour period from an internal user to more than 10 other internal users who have not elected to receive such e-mail." The policy also states that MSU’s e-mail services "are not intended as a forum for the expression of personal opinions." Since it is patently ridiculous to expect all MSU users to refrain from expressing personal opinions on e-mail, this policy can only be explained as an effort to give MSU an excuse for punishing opinions that prove unpopular with administrators.

Every student organization at MSU should be appalled by the speech restrictions in this unconstitutional policy, for which Michigan State is on FIRE’s Red Alert list. MSU may do what it can to keep its servers clear of potentially harmful spam e-mails, but it is well past time that MSU stopped putting important messages like Spencer’s in the same category.

Schools: Michigan State University Cases: Michigan State University: Student Government Official Threatened with Suspension for E-mailing Faculty about University Scheduling Concerns