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Authentication Is No Longer Optional

  |  July 7, 2004   |  Comments

Authentication, once a best practice, will soon be a requirement for legitimate e-mail marketers.

E-mail authentication services have arrived, and they’re taking hold fast. Both the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) and the Anti-Spam Technical Alliance (ASTA) of companies such as Microsoft, Yahoo, EarthLink, and AOL have made their positions clear: The next major step in the coordinated war on spam must address the fraud-prone nature of current email technology.

The email-processing industry agrees authenticating email is a good thing. The ability to conclusively determine where an email originated has advantages to both senders and receivers. An ISP can detect whether an email was sent from an authorized source and, thus, potentially bypass a few layers of content filtering, saving processing power.

It also enables ISPs to better identify and process abusive traffic coming into their networks. E-mail senders can deter fraudulent use of their domains and begin working with accreditation services such as Bonded Sender and Habeas to help assure deliverability.

There are two emerging standards of email authentication: Yahoo’s DomainKeys and the merged form of the Sender Policy Framework (SPF) and Microsoft’s Caller ID, named Sender ID.

Sender ID combines SPF and Microsoft’s Caller ID standards. The system allows a domain owner to specify in its published DNS records the mail servers authorized to send email from that domain. During the email transaction process, the receiving server looks up the DNS information for the domain the mail purports to be from and makes sure the origin IP address is authorized. If attempted forgery is detected, the receiving server can tag the email as suspicious or reject it.

AOL has endorsed SPF and is asking current and prospective members of its whitelist to set up SPF records. AOL is targeting late summer to begin checking for SPF information. The merger of SPF and Caller ID means Microsoft’s MSN and Hotmail will soon get on board.

Yahoo’s DomainKeys helps ensure both sender and message content. The program is analogous to a notary public: A cryptographic key ensures the message was sent by the domain in the sender field and wasn’t altered or tampered with in transit. With DomainKeys, a sending server "signs" the message with a key string, attaching it to the email’s header information, and publishes a public key in its DNS information. The receiving mail server can compare the key pair to determine authenticity. Upcoming support for DomainKeys is expected for two of the most popular mail transfer agents, Sendmail and Qmail.

Authentication alone won’t solve the spam problem, but it’s an important step in identifying an email’s source, thus separating email from legitimate marketers who wish to be identified from spammers who work to evade both laws and filters. Making these distinctions will help make spamming more difficult for those who practice it and increase trust in email communication.

For email marketers, authentication is quickly becoming more requirement than best practice. Fortunately, both proposed standards are fairly straightforward to implement and are gaining in adoption.

Want more email marketing information? ClickZ E-Mail Reference is an archive of all our email columns, organized by topic.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Kirill Popov and Loren McDonald

As director of ISP relations and delivery, Kirill Popov creates and enforces strict usage and anti-spam policies, maintains ISP and community relations, and oversees all abuse and policy investigations and inquiries for EmailLabs clients. Kirill works with clients on best practices, content, design, and list hygiene to minimize potential delivery issues. He's a registered member of the SpamCon foundation and representsEmailLabs on AIM's Council for Responsible E-Mail.

Loren McDonald is vice president of marketing at e-mail marketing automation company EmailLabs, overseeing corporate marketing activities and client consulting services. He has 20 years experience in marketing, consulting and strategic planning. Earlier, Loren was founder and president of Intevation, an e-marketing services firm specializing in e-mail and SEM. He's held executive marketing positions at companies including USWeb/CKS (marchFIRST), NetStruxr, and Arthur Andersen.

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