Whitelists, spam, and digital identity

Kevin Werbach is predicting the end of email as we know it. The spam plague, he sugggests, will force us to abandon the notion that anybody can contact anybody by email. We'll use "whitelists" to enumerate those folks we are willing to receive mail from.

Other, unknown senders receive an automated reply, asking them to take further action, such as explain who they are...

Like it or not, the only way to kill spam is for an element of e-mail to die as well. There's always been something charming and casual about e-mail. The informality comes through in the style people use to write messages, but also in where they send them. You've probably sent an e-mail to someone you'd never call on the phone, approach in person, or even write a letter to. Losing this aspect of e-mail is a shame, but it's inevitable. E-mail will become more like instant messaging, with its defined "buddy lists." [ Slate]

I wonder. For a very long time, I've thought that digital identity is the solution to spam. That's one of the reasons I attach S/MIME signatures to my email messages. As a standard practice, this could divide the world into two camps: those serious enough about email communication to acquire and use digital certificates issued by (and revocable by) some well-known third party, and everybody else. Client-side filters would begin by splitting inbound mail into two piles. If you wanted to land in the first pile, you'd assert your identity.

This has been, so far, one of those theoretical network-effect benefits that hasn't been compelling enough to motivate people to jump through the hoops that now complicate the acquisition of a digital ID -- or to spur vendors to simplify that process. I've often wondered what it would take to get us over the activation threshold. Maybe whitelists are it. When everyone has to register on everyone else's whitelist, PKI's core value proposition -- trusted communication without prearrangement -- will finally start to make sense.

Former URL: http://weblog.infoworld.com/udell/2002/11/20.html#a512