Security researchers often use language and metaphors from the natural world to describe problems in the virtual world. (Thus, our use of the terms “virus,” and “worm.”) Now it turns out that the links may not be so arbitrary, after Microsoft researchers discovered that tools they developed to detect spammers’ efforts to avoid anti-spam filters were also great at spotting mutations in the HIV virus.
A report from Microsoft Research in honor of World AIDS Day yesterday described how Microsoft Researchers David Heckerman and Jonathan Carlson were called upon to help AIDS researchers analyze data about how the human immune system attacks the HIV virus using technology and algorithms Microsoft had developed to fight spam e-mail in the company’s Hotmail, Outlook and Exchange e-mail products.
The Microsoft researchers were looking for ways to sort through data compiled by a consortium of hospitals and universities, including the Ragon Institute at Massachusetts General Hospital, MIT, the Center for the AIDS Programme of Research in South Africa (CAPRISA) and the KwaZulu-Natal Research Institute for Tuberculosis and HIV to help. The tool they used to do so, a computational biology tool called PhyloD, does efficient data mining that can help identify virus patterns that are fruitful targets for future analysis. The guts of the tool include algorithms developed to spot efforts by spammers to avoid detection by anti-spam filters, Microsoft said.
“It turns out there are a lot of similarities between the way spammers evolve their approaches to avoid filters and the way the HIV virus is constantly mutating,” according to the post on Microsoft Research’s blog.
In fact, the Microsoft Researchers, using PhyloD with the aid of that company’s high performance computing center, were able to process a year’s worth of data in a matter of days, resulting in the discovery of six times as many possible attack points on the HIV virus has had previously been identified.
Despite assurances by technology leaders (notably Bill Gates) that the problem of spam e-mail would soon be conquered, the nuisance e-mail are still a major headache for ISPs, corporations and individuals. And, while recent years have seen period dips in spam volume, especially as more and more Internet users shift from e-mail communications to social networks like Facebook, spam is still endemic and accounts for upwards of 90% of overall mail traffic. Various solutions have been proposed to combat it over the last decade, including suggestions that users should be charged a small fee for each e-mail sent – a system akin to postage – and proposals to force e-mail senders worldwide to digitally sign and authenticate their messages.