British government looks to MessageLabs for safe e-mail

The U.K. government has tapped British e-mail-security company MessageLabs Ltd. to protect its e-mail system from mass-mailing viruses in a deal valued at US$1.5 million, the Gloucester, England, company announced Monday.

MessageLabs will supply the Government Secure Intranet (GSI), which provides the secure network infrastructure for all government departments, with its SkyScan AV managed antivirus service, the company said in a statement.

MessageLabs will deliver the antivirus service through its partner, Cable and Wireless PLC (C&W), which already provides the infrastructure for the GSI, the company said.

SkyScan AV uses a patented artificial intelligence program to scan e-mail, without the need for signatures, before passing them onto the government network, MessageLabs said.

The program works by watching for similarities between messages, and when it sees a large number that are all the same, it blocks them, said spokesman Tim Hollingsworth. “SkyScan AV uses predictive programming called heuristics, which looks for existing similarities, evidence of payloads and areas of known conflict, but it doesn’t read for content,” Hollingsworth said.

The system also scans e-mail for pornographic images and what it calls “spam,” and though the program doesn’t consider electronic petitions and mass mailing of letters of protest to constitute spam, Hollingsworth said. But he couldn’t say with absolute certainty that SkyScan AV wouldn’t block an onslaught of thousands of near-identical HTML (Hypertext Markup Language) mail messages.

According to Alex Shipp, senior antivirus technologist for MessageLabs, SkyScan AV’s scoring system should keep citizens sending e-mails to the U.K. government from experiencing any inadvertent censorship.

“The system is only looking for malicious stuff, and there are ways to determine whether an e-mail is a spam — if someone is trying to sell you something — or porn. An e-mail petition would have a completely different look and feel,” Shipp said.

SkyScan AV has a scoring system that scans the subject line for certain words, like “viagra.” On the spam side, the scoring system goes from one to five, with five equaling a spam e-mail, Shipp said.

“We use a genetic algorithm and the system is self-learning. The score is actually set up by the system itself,” Shipp said.

The U.K. government turned to the private sector when it became concerned that the increasing number of mass mailing viruses like Lovebug, Sircam and Goner may overwhelm the government’s ability to defend departments such as the Prime Minister’s Office, the Treasury, the Department of Trade and Industry and Ministry of Defense, MessageLabs said.

Other SkyScan customers include the Bank of England, Conde Nast International Ltd., Fujitsu Ltd., Logica PLC and Lloyds TSB, according to the MessageLabs Web site.

The SkyScan services are sold mainly through service provider partners such as C&W, British Telecommunications PLC, Koninklijke KPN NV and Telia AB, Shipp said.

“When a customer signs up with us, they then redirect their mail through our mail servers, which we have all over the world and, we then do the scanning at our level,” Shipp said.

MessageLabs uses virus-scanning towers which are stacks of 20 to 30, mostly Linux, servers, Shipp said.

MessageLabs created the antivirus program about five years ago, but the two new services, the antiporn SkyScan AP and the antispam SkyScan AS, just went live in November, Shipp said.

The next move for the MessageLabs system is into the content-filtering side, where customers can request that whole e-mails be scanned for specific content that can then be blocked. “We don’t do content filtering at the moment but we should have that option available for customers by the end of this year or early next year,” Shipp said.

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