Books about spam fighting and related topics

Updated Februrary 16, 2006
Here are some books about spam fighting and related system management topics. They're rated from no stars to three.

If you want to buy any of them, there are links to, Barnes & Noble, and Books a Million. If you use the links to buy the books, it doesn't affect the price you pay but we get a small rebate. (Wow!) Of the three B&N probably ships fastest, Books a Million is cheap and slow.

Stopping Spam by Alan Schwartz and Simson Garfinkel, published by O'Reilly, is the first and still the best overall book about spam fighting for the less technical user. It covers this history of e-mail and usenet spam, techniques from hiding from and fighting spam, and suggestions about what you can do. The descriptions are clear and readable, even though some of the material is technical and tricky.

The main significant shortcoming is that the book doesn't have much to say to system administrators beyond some sound but non-specific management advice and pointers to familiar on-line resources for configuring mail and usenet software. Since it hasn't been updated since 1998, the detailed advice is now woefully out of date. I wish the authors would go back and do another edition.

Order from Amazon, B&N, Books a Million.

Ending Spam: Bayesian Content Filtering and the Art of Statistical Language Classification, by Jonathan A. Zdziarski, published by No Starch Press, would get three stars if they'd left out the first two words in the title, only then desperate spam recipients wouldn't buy it. It starts with a cursory overview of the history of spam up through about 2000, waves off every other spam filtering technique, and then settles down to a long discussion of how you build adaptive filters.

If you want to build that kind of filter, for spam filtering or any other text sorting job, it's not a bad book. The descriptions of techniques are good, and they address a variety of somewhat arcane but important areas like unscrambing obfuscated HTML, and arranging for multiple mail recipients to share filtering advice. But if you want to end spam, well, don't waste your time.

Order from Amazon, B&N, Books a Million.

Programming Internet Email by David Wood, published by O'Reilly, has only a small chapter specifically about spam, but has a lot of useful information for spam fighters. It covers the structure of mail messages, the way that mail-related network protocols including SMTP, POP3, and IMAP work, and toolkits in Perl and Java for building your own mail tools.

The anti-spam chapter offers an overview of the spam problem, a short discussion of how to read headers and investigate relay hosts, and a little advice on spam blocking. (It mentions the RBL but the author seems to think the RBL works based on easily forged domain names rather than IP addresses, one of the few errors I found in the book.) Overall, it's a useful book if you have any interest in writing or maintaining anti-spam tools.

Order from Amazon, B&N, Books a Million.

Removing the Spam by Geoff Mulligan, published by Addison-Wesley, should be the technical companion to Schwartz and Garfinkel. Unfortunately, its flaws are severe enough that we can't recommend it.

Despite its title, this book is actually about setting up some popular Unix mail server software, the sendmail mail transfer agent, procmail mail filter, and majordomo and smartlist mailing list managers, with relatively little info specifically about spam. Unfortunately, some of the anti-spam advice he does give is of questionable quality, and several of the examples are just wrong.

There's other issues as well: There's many typos in the recipes in the procmail section which is a particular problem since he advises you to cut and paste them without understanding the details of recipe syntax. The discussion of majordomo completely omits the restrict_post option that rejects postings to lists by non-members, the most effective anti-spam technique majordomo has.

A corrected version of this book could be quite useful, but as it stands, you're better off relying on the on-line documentation for the various packages which, if not as readable, is considerably more accurate.

Order from Amazon, B&N, Books a Million.

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