Measuring the Role of Greylisting and Nolisting in Fighting Spam


Spam has been largely studied in the past years from different perspectives but, unfortunately, it is still an open problem and a lucrative and active business for criminals and bot herders. While several countermeasures have been proposed and deployed in the past decade, their impact and effectiveness is not always clear. In particular, on top of the most common content- and sender-based anti-spam techniques, two minor approaches are popular among system administrators to cope with this annoying problem: greylisting and nolisting. These techniques exploit known features of the Simple Mail Transfer Protocol (SMTP) protocol that are not often respected by spam bots. This assumption makes these two countermeasures really simple to adopt and, at least in theory, quite effective.

In this paper we present the first comprehensive study of nolisting and greylisting, in which we analyze these spam countermeasures from different perspectives. First, we measure their world-wide deployment and provide insights from their distribution. Second, we measure their effectiveness against a real dataset of malware samples responsible to generate over 70% of the global spam traffic. Finally, we measure the impact of these two defensive mechanisms on the delivery of normal emails.

Our study provides a unique and valuable perspective on two of the most innovative and atypical anti-spam systems. Our findings may guide system administrators and security experts to better assess their anti-spam infrastructure and shed some light on myths about greylisting and nolisting.

Proceedings of the IEEE/IFIP International Conference on Dependable Systems and Networks (DSN)