Filters do what we tell them

In the email space we talk about filters as if they were sentient beings. “The filters decided…” “The filters said…” This is convenient shorthand, but tends to mask that filters aren’t actually deciding or saying anything. Filters are software processes that follow rules dictated by the people who create and maintain them. The rules flow from the goals set by the mailbox provider. The mailbox provider sets goals based on what their users tell them. Users communicate what they want by how they interact with email.

What we end up with is a model where a set of people make decisions about what mail should be let in. They pass that decision on to the people who write the filters. The people who write the filters create software that evaluates email based on those goals using information collected from many places, including the endusers.

What mail should be let in is an interesting question, with answers that differ depending on the environment the filter is deployed in.

Consumer ISPs typically want to keep their users happy and safe. Their goals are to stop harmful mail like phishing, or mail containing viruses or malware. They also want to deliver mail that makes their users happy. As one ISP employee put it, “We want our users to be delighted with your mail.”

Businesses have a few other goals when it comes to filters. They, too, need filters to protect their network from malicious actors. As businesses are often directly targeted by bad actors, this is even more important. They also want to get business related email, whether that be from customers or vendors. They may want to ensure that certain records are kept and laws are followed.

Governments have another set of goals. Universities and schools have yet another set of goals. And, of course, there are folks who run their own systems for their own use.

Complicating the whole thing is that some groups have different tolerances for mistakes. For instance, many of our customers are folks dealing with being blocked by commercial filters. Therefore, we don’t run commercial filters. That does mean we see a lot of viruses and malware and rely on other strategies to stop a compromise, strategies that wouldn’t be as viable in a different environment.

Filters are built to meet specific user needs. What they do isn’t random, it’s not unknowable. They are designed to accomplished certain goals and generally they’re pretty good at what they do. Understanding the underlying goals of filters can help drive solutions to poor delivery.

Use the shorthand, talk about what filters are doing. But remember that there are people behind the filters. Those filters are constantly maintained in order to keep up with ever changing mail streams. They aren’t static and they aren’t forgotten. They are updated regularly. They are fluid, just like the mail they act on.


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