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USENIX 2003 Annual Technical Conference, FREENIX Track — Paper    [USENIX Annual Conference '03 Tech Program Index]

Pp. 63-76 of the Proceedings

Learning Spam: Simple Techniques
For Freely-Available Software

Bart Massey   Mick Thomure
Raya Budrevich   Scott Long
Computer Science Department
Portland State University
Portland, OR  USA


The problem of automatically filtering out spam e-mail using a classifier based on machine learning methods is of great recent interest. This paper gives an introduction to machine learning methods for spam filtering, reviewing some of the relevant ideas and work in the open source community. An overview of several feature detection and machine learning techniques for spam filtering is given. The authors' freely-available implementations of these techniques are discussed. The techniques' performance on several different corpora are evaluated. Finally, some conclusions are drawn about the state of the art and about fruitful directions for spam filtering for freely-available UNIX software practitioners.

1 Introduction

There has been a great deal of interest of late in the problem of automatically detecting and filtering out unsolicited commercial e-mail messages, commonly referred to as spam. (While the Hormel Corporation, owners of the ``Spam'' trademark, are not happy about the choice of name, they have acceded to the popular usage. For a further etymology see [14].) Recent dramatic increases in spam volume have combined with the success of a number of new filtering methods to make automated spam filtering highly successful. The SpamAssassin [20] mail-filtering tool is one such tool. SpamAssassin uses a large manually-generated feature set and a simple perceptron classifier with hand-tuned weights to select ham (non-spam) messages and discard spam.

Much current interest has focused around the role of machine learning [5,15] in spam filtering methodologies. This paper describes the basics of machine learning and several simple supervised machine-learning algorithms that are effective in filtering spam. The authors have made implementations of these algorithms publically available, along with various kinds of feature data from several corpora used to evaluate the algorithms. These implementations and data are used to help evaluate the relative merits of these algorithms, and suggest directions for future work.

2 Context

The spam problem has received increasing attention in recent years. As a result, a number of approaches for dealing with the problem have been proposed. A recent issue of Wired magazine [11] lists a variety of popular strategies. Blacklists such as attempt to stop spam by preventing spam-delivering hosts from communicating with the rest of the Internet, or at least with the victim machine. Distributed identification systems such as Vipul's Razor allow users to manually identify spam for collaborative filtering. Header analysis can be used to eliminate messages that have malformed or unusual headers or header fields, as well as messages that have invalid return addresses or sender information. Legal approaches are gaining currency at both the U.S. State and Federal levels, including proposed penalties for unsolicited commercial e-mail and anonymous commercial messages. (It should be noted that the legal approach is widely credited with largely eliminating unsolicited commercial messages via FAX.) The range of approaches is growing rapidly in response to the increase in spam traffic: approaches not noted by Wired include whitelist systems such as Active Spam Killer [16], a mailback system that attempts to verify that e-mail is ham by requiring a confirmation message from unknown senders.

A recent conference on the spam problem at MIT [8] was nearly overwhelmed by the volume of attendees. The presentations were quite productive; many critical points were raised about spam filtering that deserve wider attention by the open source community. There was far too much useful information to summarize here: perhaps one example will suffice. There seems to be a widespread perception that false positives (ham messages flagged as spam by filters) are ``intolerable'' in spam filtering.

The MIT Spam Conference presenters mentioned several reasons why insisting on zero tolerance for false positives can lead users to wrongly reject spam filtering as a technology. As many researchers have noted, the absolute prohibition of false positives can only be justified by assuming that they have infinite cost: while a false positive may have a cost much larger than a false negative [10], this cost is not infinite. Further, false positive rates of most filtering algorithms can be lowered in a tradeoff for false negative rates. Finally, a good spam filter may actually exhibit super-human classification performance: after all, this is the sort of repetitive and error-prone task that a human may be expected to perform poorly [12]. The unsophisticated filters reported here uniformly achieve false positive rates of just a few percent: the authors informally estimate their human false positive rates to be in a similar range. Third, the false positive rate of a single spam filter is somewhat irrelevant: both ensembles of filters and the combination of filtering with other approaches to spam detection can largely take care of the overall false positive problem. Finally, spam will only be sent if it is profitable: in the long haul, widespread use of filters may change the economics of spamming enough to largely eliminate the problem [7].

Research in spam filtering within the freely available software community is currently proceeding quite quickly: some of what is said here about the state of the art will no longer be true by the time it is published. The general system engineering and machine learning principles that are key to the spam elimination effort, however, should still be valuable for some time.

3 Machine Learning

Machine learning is a field with a broad and deep history. In general, a machine learner is a program or device that modifies current behavior by taking into account remembered past results. This is a broad definition. However, much of machine learning research is focused on inductive learning, in which general rules are built based on a corpus, a set of specific examples. In spam filtering (and many other applications) the corpus consists of pre-classified examples, and the learned rules are used to classify e-mail as either ham or spam.

This paper gives greatest emphasis to supervised learning. In supervised learning, the examples to be used for learning are collected and processed during a training phase. The learned rules are then used without further modification during a classification phase. Reinforcement learning--on-line correction of the learned rules in response to classification errors--is also quite valuable. This allows the system to adapt to changing conditions, such as user preferences or spam content. The simplistic approach of re-learning the entire corpus, including newly acquired classifications, can suffice if the learner is sufficiently fast on large inputs.

Supervised machine learning for spam classification begins with a corpus consisting of a collection of correctly classified ham and spam messages. In the feature selection stage, key features of the corpus are identified that distinguish ham from spam. In the training stage, the selected features of the corpus are studied to learn characteristics that differentiate spam from ham messages. Concurrently or subsequently, a validation stage is often used to check the accuracy of the learned characteristics. Finally, the learned knowledge is used in a classification stage that filters spam by giving a classification to each target message in the classification set.

Some important considerations in supervised learning involve management of the corpus. For accuracy's sake, one would like to use the entire corpus as training data. Unfortunately, this makes validation quite difficult: the classifier will appear to perform unrealistically well when asked to classify the messages on which it was trained. Fortunately, in most problem domains the number of training instances needed to learn with a given accuracy grows only logarithmically with the size of the hypothesis space, the set of concepts that must be distinguished. Thus, it is customary to split the corpus into a training set and a validation set. A rule of thumb in machine learning is to make the validation set consist of a randomly selected third of the corpus. There are much more sophisticated methods for validation that improve on the quality of this approach, but the simple method will suffice for most cases.

It is reasonable to be concerned about the minimum corpus size required for full accuracy. As corpus size increases, machine learning algorithms tend to asymptotically approach their maximum accuracy. Figure 1 shows the accuracy of a number of different machine learning algorithms on increasingly large subsets of a synthetic corpus discussed in Section 7. The figure shows that for the algorithms discussed here, 100-1000 messages are sufficient to achieve maximal accuracy. The variance at low corpus sizes is due to statistical error, and represents a large inter-run variance.

Figure 1: Learning Rate
\begin{figure}\centering \psfig{,width=0.95\linewidth} \end{figure}

A risk that must be countered when training a machine learner is overtraining: building a learner that classifies based on quirks of the training set rather than general properties of the corpus. Figure 2 shows the change in classification rate during training for the perceptron of Section 4.2.4 on the 15,000 instance personal e-mail corpus described in Section 7. In the figure, the accuracy of classification on the training set continues to increase, while the accuracy on the validation set actually begins to drop. This explains the need for an independent validation set: training should stop when maximal validation set accuracy is reached.

Figure 2: Overtraining
\begin{figure}\centering \psfig{,width=0.95\linewidth} \end{figure}

An important tradeoff in spam filtering is between false positive (ham messages flagged as spam) and false negative (misses, spam messages flagged as ham) rates. A detector that always says ``ham'', after all, will never experience a false positive. In communications theory, this tradeoff is illustrated by a receiver operating curve that shows the tradeoff between rates. Most spam filters prefer to operate with a bias that minimizes the total error. False positives, however, are generally much more expensive than false negatives, so it may be desirable to operate the filter outside of its optimal range. Figure 3 shows receiver operating curves for several spam filters on the synthetic corpus discussed below. The spam filters were biased by varying the percentage of spam from 5% to 95%: for these filters, this caused the detection profile to shift. The strong preference of the filters for operating with a particular optimal bias is notable.

Figure 3: Receiver Operating Curves
\begin{figure}\centering \psfig{,width=0.95\linewidth} \end{figure}

The accuracy of the corpus is also a concern. It is to be expected that a certain amount of misclassification of messages and mis-recognition of features will be present in the data. Section 7 discusses some of the characteristics of the corpora used here. While these corpora have received a great deal of attention from a variety of sources, they nonetheless seem to have some residual misclassification.

Different learners may cope with different types of features and classifications. Ultimately, spam filtering tends to concern itself with a binary classification: ham vs. spam. More sophisticated document classifiers can provide both more detailed classification outputs (e.g. ``Nigerian spam'', ``message from Mom'') and more precise estimates of their classification confidence.

Some machine learners (notably neural nets) can handle continuous feature values. Many learners are restricted to discrete feature domains, and one of the algorithms discussed here is tailored to binary features. The learning algorithms described in this paper have been set up to use binary features, for several reasons. The fact that binary feature data can be handled by essentially any inductive learner permits the comparison of a wide range of approaches. The binary-feature version of a typical learning algorithm is easier to explain: the mathematical notation is complicated enough without worrying about many-valued features. Perhaps most importantly, the common types of binary feature detectors are more difficult for a spammer to manipulate. For example, if the number of occurences of a particular feature in a given message is considered, a spammer can load a message up with repeated instances of a ``good'' feature and overwhelm the spam-related features of the message.

4 Learning Methods

There are a huge range of approaches to machine learning discussed in the literature. Several criteria have been used to select algorithms for presentation:

Simplicity: First and foremost, the algorithm must be comprehensible and easily implementable by UNIX developers of freely available software. Algorithms comprehensible only to machine learning experts have been eschewed: they often offer only a marginal increase in performance in any case.
Currency: Most of the algorithm families currently being used by freely-available spam detectors are represented in this sample. A glaring omission is genetic algorithms. The range of algorithms and implementations in this category is enormous, making it difficult to select a canonical candidate. In addition, the performance of genetic algorithms in spam filtering does not currently appear to be exceptional.
Pedagogy: The algorithms presented here are those that are commonly used in introductory artificial intelligence and machine learning texts [15,5] to introduce various classes of learners. While much more sophisticated variants of each technique presented are possible, grossly speaking the performance gains over these simple techniques are modest, and the extra implementation difficulties substantial.
It is worth emphasizing this last point again. More sophisticated variants of each of the algorithms presented here have already been applied to spam filtering. Simple algorithms tend to perform reasonably well, so focusing on them is practical. More importantly, the study of simple algorithms is intended to be inspirational, leading to further investigation by spam filtering practitioners in the freely available software community.

1 Notation

As mentioned earlier, this paper considers binary features for binary classification. A feature detector is applied to an e-mail message to produce a set $\mathbf{x}= x_1 \ldots
x_m$ of binary features of the message. The binary classification $c$ of the message may be given or may be the quantity to be determined: this classification is either $+$ indicating spam, or $-$ indicating ham. Both the classified feature detector output $\mathbf{x}\rightarrow c$ and the original e-mail message are informally referred to as an instance. In the absence of other context the feature detector output will be implied. Negation will be represented with an overline, thus $\overline{x}_i$ is true when feature $x_i$ is absent.

The instances considered here are drawn from up to three disjoint sets: a set $T$ of training instances, a set $V$ of validation instances, and a set $C$ of classification instances. When more than one instance is involved, additional subscripts for features and classifications will represent the instance; for example $\mathbf{x}_j = x_{1\/j}
\ldots x_{m\/j}$. The set of positive and negative instances drawn from a set $S$ will be represented by $S_+$ and $S_-$ respectively. The set of instances with feature $i$ true and false will be represented by $S_{x_i}$ and $S_{\overline{x}_i}$ respectively.

2 Techniques

In this section, several supervised learning techniques are considered. An extremely simple baseline algorithm is presented, intended partly to illustrate concepts and to provide a standard of comparison. A discussion of commonly-used and important algorithms ensues, concluding with a decision-tree method. Finally, an advanced approach using multilayer neural networks is discussed.

The authors have made UNIX utility implementations of each of the algorithms described in this section freely available: see Availability at the end of this document. The corpus data used is also freely available from the authors. (The exception is personal e-mail messages, for which only feature data is available.) Thus, the performance measurements reported in Sec. 8 below should be readily replicable by other investigators.

1 Minimum Hamming Distance Voting

Perhaps the simplest conceptual method of learning is as follows. When presented with the feature set $\mathbf{x}$ of a target instance to be classified, find a subset $M$ of the instances in the training set $T$ with the same feature values $\mathbf{x}$. Then classify $\mathbf{x}\rightarrow c$ if $\vert M_+\vert > \vert M_-\vert$, and $\mathbf{x}\rightarrow
\overline{c}$ otherwise. (Actually, ties should be randomized appropriately.)

This brute-force method is simple to implement, but it has drawbacks. Foremost of these is that given a reasonably small training set and reasonably large number of features, it may be unlikely to find any training instances whose features match those of the target instance. In this situation, the error rate may be very high.

Minimum Hamming Distance Voting (MHDV) is an adaptation of this ``brute force'' method designed to achieve higher accuracy for a given training set size. The Hamming distance $h(\mathbf{x}, \mathbf{x}')$ between two binary vectors $\mathbf{x}$ and $\mathbf{x}'$ is defined to be the number of bit positions in which $\mathbf{x}$ and $\mathbf{x}'$ differ. Thus, $h(\mathbf{x}, \mathbf{x}') = \char93 (\mathbf{x}\oplus
\mathbf{x}')$, where $\oplus$ is the exclusive-or operator and $\char93 $ is the population count or Hamming weight: the number of 1 bits in the vector.

MHDV generalizes brute force learning via the simple mechanism of using nearby instances rather than identical ones. Consider a target instance $\mathbf{x}$ and a training set $T$. Let $M$ be the subset of $T$ with minimal Hamming distance from $\mathbf{x}$. A target message $\mathbf{x}$ is classified as spam if $\vert M_+\vert > \vert M_-\vert$ and ham otherwise. Ties are broken randomly. Formally, MHDV is an instance-based learning method, specifically a $k$-nearest-neighbor algorithm with $k=1$. Figure 4 illustrates the MHDV classification process: the target instance (the empty dot with feature vector $11011$) is classified positive in accordance with the majority of its distance-2 neighbors.

Figure 4: MHDV Classification
\begin{figure}\centering %%

To the best of the authors' knowledge, instance based learning has not previously been proposed as a spam filtering methodology. There are serious advantages to this approach, but also serious drawbacks. The accuracy of MHDV improves dramatically as a function of the size of $M$, and therefore as a function of the size of $T$. But in a naïve implementation a single classification requires comparing the target $\mathbf{x}$ to each instance in $T$, and thus time $o(m\vert T\vert)$ where $m$ is the number of features. (More sophisticated implementations can use similarity hashing techniques to improve this performance somewhat.) The storage of the large set of instances is also a burden, although storage is increasingly inexpensive.

Note that reinforcement learning is easy with MHDV: simply put misclassified instances into the training set with the correct classification. MHDV should be easily extensible to discrete or continuous features that obey a distance metric.

2 Naïve Bayesian

An interesting class of supervised learning algorithms focuses on probabilistic interpretation of training data. One of the simplest of these is the so-called naïve Bayesian approach. Bayes' Rule famously notes that

\textbf{pr}(S\vert\mathbf{x}) = \frac{\textbf{pr}(\mathbf{x}\vert S)\cdot\textbf{pr}(S)}{\textbf{pr}(\mathbf{x})}

where $\textbf{pr}(S\vert\mathbf{x})$ is the probability that an instance is spam given that it has the given feature set, $\textbf{pr}(\mathbf{x}\vert S)$ is the probability that it has the given feature set given that it is spam (an important distinction), $\textbf{pr}(S)$ is the overall probability that a message is spam, and $\textbf{pr}(\mathbf{x})$ is the probability of receiving a message containing the given features. Crucially, the quantities on the right-hand side of the equation can all be measured, under the (wrong, but surprisingly harmless in practice) assumption that the features $x_1 \ldots x_m$ are independent, having no particular statistical relationship. A Naïve Bayes classifier thus classifies a message as spam when

\frac{\left(\prod_{i=1}^{m} \textbf{pr}(x_i\vert S)\right)\...
...i\vert H)\right)\cdot\textbf{pr}(H)}{\textbf{pr}(\mathbf{x})}

Note that the denominator is constant across the inequality and can be dropped.

Some algebraic and probabilistic manipulation yields a decision rule that classifies a message $\mathbf{x}$ as spam if and only if

\vert T_+\vert\prod_{i=1}^{m} \frac{\vert T_{+,x_i}\vert}{\...
...rt\prod_{i=1}^{m} \frac{\vert T_{-,x_i}\vert}{\vert T_-\vert}

To oversimplify, Naïve Bayes classifies an instance as spam if it shares more significantly in the features of spam than in the features of non-spam. The rule also takes into account the a priori probability that the message is spam, i.e. the overall spamminess of the training set. A statistical adjustment (see [15]) is used for features that appear rarely or not at all with a given sign in the corpus. It is also common to take logarithms to turn the product computation into a sum computation: this greatly improves numerical robustness at a slight expense in performance.

The Naïve Bayes classification rule can be seen as a relative of the MHDV rule that uses the feature set in a different, more principled fashion. Another major difference is that the set sizes used in the decision rule can be computed during the learning phase, and the training data then discarded. This makes classification more efficient than with MHDV.

Naïve Bayes learning is relatively simple to implement, and accommodates discrete features reasonably well. It is not quite as accurate or robust as some other methods, but is highly efficient to train. Reinforcement learning is also easy: the relevant set sizes are simply continuously updated with newly-classified instances.

3 Graham

As mentioned earlier, much of the interest in Bayesian methods in the freely available software community was inspired by Graham's article A Plan For Spam [6]. The machine learning approach used by Graham was an informal probabilistic one: Robinson [18] later elucidated the relationship between Graham's technique and Naïve Bayesian methods.

In essence, Graham's method is similar to Naïve Bayesian: the a priori probabilities of a message's words are combined to yield a likelihood that the message is or is not spam. Specifically, Graham classifies a message as spam if

\prod_{i=1}^{m} \frac{\frac{\vert T_{+,x_i}\vert}{\vert T_+...
...{\vert T_+\vert}+\frac{\vert T_{-,x_i}\vert}{\vert T_-\vert}}

is greater than $0.9$. The features $x_i$ used in the calculation are those words whose contribution to the product differs most from $0.5$: roughly speaking, these are the high-gain words (Sec. 4.2.5). Various empirical adjustments are made to the above formula in the implementation: Graham asserts that they do not change the classification except in unusual cases.

Robinson has designed an adapted Bayesian method that is claimed to be a strict improvement on Graham's approach: true Naïve Bayesian is supposed to be better yet, although it often seems to offer only a small improvement in experiments reported here. Graham's success in spam filtering shows that even an extremely simple and less-principled approach to spam feature detection and machine learning can get good results in practice.

4 Perceptron

Figure 5: Artificial Neuron
\begin{figure}\centering %%

Neural nets are commonly used in supervised learning. The simplest form of neural net is the single-element perceptron: a message is classified as spam if and only if

\sum_{i=1}^{m} w_i \cdot x_i > w_0

where the $w_i$ are real-valued weights. Note that the output is made binary by thresholding: in addition to being convenient for a binary classifier, this non-linearity is important in building larger neural networks. Figure 5 shows the perceptron structure schematically.

The weights are assigned during the training phase by gradient descent. Repeated passes are made over all training instances: small adjustments are made to the weights on misclassified training instances until the number of misclassified validation instances is minimized. This somewhat awkward procedure minimizes the probability of overtraining the perceptron.

Multilayer neural nets use the output of single perceptrons or similar structures as inputs to subsequent perceptrons. This allows the system to learn more complex features, at the expense of more complex training and difficult control.

Perceptrons and other artificial neurons accommodate binary and discrete features essentially by treating them as continuous. Reinforcement learning in these systems is by adjusting the training weights to correctly reclassify misclassified instances.

5 ID3

Decision tree learning is a bit more complicated than the above methods. The ID3 decision tree algorithm [17] is a simple, classic decision tree learner. The information-theoretic entropy $U$ of a set of messages $S$ represents the difficulty of determining whether a message in $S$ is spam or non-spam:

U(S) &=& - p(S_+,S) \log_2 p(S_+,S) - \\
&& p(S_-,S) \log_2 p(S_-,S)


p(S_0,S) = \frac{\vert S_0\vert}{\vert S\vert}

If $S$ is partitioned based on the value of some particular feature $x_i$, so that $S = S_{x_i} \cup
S_{\overline{x}_i}$, the information-theoretic gain

G(S,x_i) = U(S) - p(S_{x_i},S) U(S_{x_i})
- p(S_{\overline{x}_i},S) U(S_{\overline{x}_i})

represents the information gained by considering the subsets $S_{x_i}$ and $S_{\overline{x}_i}$ separately.

In ID3 the feature $x_i$ yielding the highest gain on the training set $T$ is selected for splitting. These subsets are further split until subsets are produced containing instances of only one or largely a single classification. The resulting tree is used in the classification stage: target instances are given the classification matching that of the training instances in their leaf subset. Overtraining is controlled by stopping the split when the largest gain is small, or when the statistical significance of a split as given by a $\chi^2$ test is too low. Figure 6 shows a binary decision tree: an instance is classified by walking from the root of the tree to the leaf, choosing a direction at each node based on the properties of the given feature. Since the given instance has feature 3 positive and feature 2 negative, it will be classified as ham.

Figure 6: Decision Tree
\begin{figure}\centering %%

Decision trees can easily accomodate multi-valued discrete features by way of $n$-ary trees. Continuous features are usually handled by quantization. Reinforcement learning usually involves simply putting the newly-classified instance at the appropriate leaf: occasionally tree operations may have to be performed to preserve the property of splitting on the highest-gain features first.

3 Advanced Learning With Neural Nets

In addition to the relatively unsophisticated techniques described above, more advanced machine learning techniques can also be used to filter spam. In general, these techniques trade off more complex and difficult designs and implementations for potentially higher quality results. This study explores one such approach as an example: constructing a multilayer neural network. This methodology generalizes the simple perceptron of Section 4.2.4, and provides a good illustration of the tradeoffs of an advanced machine learning approach for spam detection.

When constructing a multilayer neural network, one is faced with the choice between implementing from scratch, or attempting to use an existing package that is freely available. Implementing a neural network from scratch is appropriate when performing neural network research: however, it requires substantial effort to develop and debug it, and more effort still to validate it. Subtle numerical bugs can easily contaminate data in ways which are difficult to detect.

Given a focus on spam filtering research rather than neural network research, a free software platform is a natural choice. Using free neural network software leverages years of development and debugging effort. Because free software is in widespread use by researchers around the world, it undergoes intense scrutiny for correctness, and bugs can be fixed quickly when they are found. The availability of the software makes it easier for other researchers to reproduce and extend results. One caveat, however, is that a firm grasp of the principles behind neural networks is still necessary. Neural networks are sometimes finicky learners, and can produce poor results when improperly constructed and used.

1 Introduction to Neural Networks

A neural network consists of multiple, interconnected computational units. Each unit can have multiple inputs, but only a single output. The unit's basic function is to add up the values of its inputs, and transform the result with a nonlinear function to produce its output. The individual units are not very powerful by themselves, but when linked together in a network they can carry out complex computations.

Although each unit can only produce a single output value, this value can be used as input to many other units. Connections between the output of one unit and the input of another are called links. Each link has an associated weight. The output of the first unit is multiplied by this weight to become the input of the second unit. In a network with hundreds of units there can be thousands of links, and therefore thousands of weights. It is these weights which change as the network is trained.

Figure 7: Neural Net
\begin{figure}\centering %%

The network configuration used for spam filtering was a basic feedforward topology. In this configuration, the network can be viewed as a series of layers of units with the outputs of one layer fully connected to the inputs of the next layer. This topology is called feedforward because there are no loops (links only go forward, never backward) and no jumps (links never skip over intervening layers). The input cascades from layer to layer, undergoing a transformation at each step, until it becomes the output. The first layer of the network is the input layer. This layer collects the input and passes it through weighted links to the first interior hidden layer. Each hidden layer computes the weighted sum of its inputs, and then transforms the resulting values with a nonlinear transfer function to produce its output. The last hidden layer sends its output to the output layer, which in some configurations may apply a final nonlinear transformation. In our network, the output layer did not use a nonlinear transfer function. Figure 7 shows one such network, with three input neurons, two hidden neurons, and one output neuron.

Figure 8: Sigmoid Response Function

The nonlinearity of the hidden units is what gives a neural network its power to learn complex functions. Without some form of nonlinearity, the transformations performed by the layers of the network amount to nothing more than a series of matrix multiplications; a multi-layer network would be equivalent to our simple perceptron. Thus it is necessary to introduce nonlinearity if the network is to be able to learn complex mappings. For our networks we selected a transfer function called the sigmoid, an S-shaped curve whose graph is shown in Figure 8. This function is commonly used in neural network research, and should be available in any free or commercially available neural network package.

2 A Spam Filtering Network

In the feedforward networks employed in this project, the input layer consists of a number of units equal to the feature vector size of the input: each input unit corresponds to a single feature. Because we are treating spam detection as a binary classification problem, only one output unit is used. The output of this unit should be 0 for nonspam inputs, and 1 for spam inputs. Note that, as with the perceptron, it is possible to allow the neural network output to vary continuously, indicating the likelihood that a message is spam: this provides one way to trade off false negatives for false positives, while flagging marginal messages for further consideration.

One of the trickier tasks in constructing a multilayer neural net is choosing the number of hidden layers and the number of units in each layer. The spam filter design uses a single hidden layer with many fewer units than the input layer. It is desirable to have as few hidden units as possible to avoid a form of overfitting in which the extra neurons end up modeling unimportant training set details. However, with too few hidden units, the network will not be able to accurately model the underlying function.

The weights in large networks correspond to a large number of degrees of freedom. Estimating how many degrees of freedom are truly necessary involves estimating the degree of correlation between inputs. It is easier to estimate the number of degrees of freedom if the inputs are as uncorrelated as possible. A word clustering feature detector (Sec. 5.3) helps to achieve this by dividing words into clusters which are maximally independent.

Like the perceptron, a neural net is trained through a process of adjusting the link weights between layers so as to bring the actual output vectors closer to the desired ones. The network essentially learns "by example." The most famous training algorithm for feedforward networks is backpropagation. In backpropagation, values first flow forward through the network to produce outputs. These outputs are compared with the desired ones, and errors are then propagated backward through the network, adjusting the weights so as to reduce the error. A closely related training technique, Rprop, has many of the same features as backpropagation: it was selected for filtering because of its robustness and quick convergence.

Several issues arise when selecting a network design. It is clear that the input layer must have as many units as the number of features in the feature vectors, but these value can be presented to the network in different ways. Simplest is to treat each feature as a binary input, which is 0 when the feature is not present, and 1 if it is, regardless of how many times that feature might occur in a single message. This makes the neural net compatible with the other machine learners discussed here, and simplifies feature processing.

(Another option would be to standardize the input values according to some statistical model. Originally, the input values were standardized under the assumption that they are normally distributed. The purpose of this was primarily to accelerate the learning of the network. Because the feature counts have a wide spread--many are 0, some can be in the hundreds--it takes a long time for the network to adjust its weights to account for this spread. Standardizing the inputs brings the values closer together, which speeds convergence.)


SNNS is a neural network simulation package developed at the University of Stuttgart in Germany. The source code is open, and the software is freely available for research and academic use. The homepage of the SNNS project can be found at

SNNS was selected for many reasons. Most important is its great flexibility. SNNS supports a wide range of network topologies, not just feedforward networks. It provides an array of training algorithms which can be applied to almost any kind of network design. Parameters like the number of layers, layer dimensions, links, and transfer functions are all fully configurable. This allows experimentation with a variety of designs with no time wasted recoding the network.

SNNS has a very attractive GUI which runs under X. Although there is no visual design tool, it is straightforward to configure a basic feedforward network. The GUI can display the network in action and can produce graphs of output error over time. These features make it simple to visually determine when the network is performing well.

The package can also be operated in a batch mode. The batch interpreter has a complete scripting language to automate training sessions. Training and validation can be scheduled arbitrarily, and error results can be written to disk at any time during the process. This makes it simple to begin training runs on large datasets overnight.

Finally, SNNS has the ability to translate a trained network into a C program. Although the network cannot be trained further once converted to C, it is very compact and easily callable from other C code. This makes it possible to build high-performance message classifiers once the network is trained.

The use of an open source neural network ``construction kit'' thus permits simple implementation of a quite sophisticated machine learner for spam. A similar approach could be employed for other machine learners discussed earlier, as open source construction kits are available for a wide variety of machine learning techniques.

5 Feature Detection

The problem of feature detection is largely orthogonal to the problem of learning on the identified feature set. (This observation does not seem to be commonly made in the open source community, and deserves wider attention.) This work has experimented with several different types of feature detector. More sophisticated methods have been applied to feature detection. For example, Lewis' Data Enrichment Method [13] is unbelievably powerful, but has other drawbacks that prevent its use in the real world.

1 SpamAssassin

The feature set computed by SpamAssassin was the initial basis of this study. The advantages of this approach are manifold: SpamAssassin provides several hundred hand-crafted binary features, the features seem to be reasonably sensitive, and using SpamAssassin features permits easy comparison with the classification performed by SpamAssassin itself.

The features recognized by SpamAssassin provide a fine feature source for the learning algorithms described above. Maintenance of this feature detector, however, is a tremendous amount of work. In addition, the detector is quite slow, as slow as a few messages per second if the network-based lookup features are enabled.

2 Gain-Based

Rather than hand-crafting a feature detector, it would be useful to automatically extract features directly from the corpus. When trying to classify email the most natural features are the words of the message. A standard approach is to use individual words directly as features. Each feature vector element indicates whether a particular word is present in a message. However, the English language contains thousands of words, while every email message contains only a small subset of those words. This makes it difficult to decide which words are good representatives of spam mail and nonspam mail, given a limited amount of features.

To this end, a feature detector has been constructed that selects e-mail body words with the highest information-theoretic gain (Sec. 4.2.5) as likely high-utility candidates for learning algorithms. This detector appears to work quite well, with learning accuracies approaching those achieved with the SpamAssassin detector. The detector operates by breaking the e-mail body into words using simplistic rules, and then measuring the gain of each word using a dictionary. Those words with gain above a set threshold are retained.

3 Word Clustering

A preliminary attempt was made to assess the performance of word-based features, using the 134 words with the highest information gain as features. The resulting feature vectors were quite sparse: most messages had few high-gain words. The training cost of supervised learning algorithms generally grows in proportion to the number of inputs. For example, the number of weights in a feedforward neural network grows in this fashion. Because training time is proportional to the number of weights, considering a large number of inputs can make training intractably slow. What is needed, then is a way to automatically extract a small number of features that nonetheless give a strong signal on every message.

One solution to this problem is to cluster words of similar meaning together into a single feature. This allows more unique words (thousands instead of hundreds) to be considered when scanning a message for features, while simultaneously keeping the feature count low enough to make training managable. This gives much better coverage of the set of words occurring in email messages.

An information-theoretic clustering algorithm described in a recent paper by Dhillon and Modha [4] seems to be a good candidate. This algorithm was selected from among many other clustering algorithms proposed for machine learning primarily because its execution time is linear in the number of words and clusters. Other clustering techniques tend to be quadratic or worse in the number of words and clusters. In addition, the Dhillon algorithm is unlike some other clustering algorithms in that it considers the spam/non-spam classification of the messages while clustering. The mechanics of the Dhillon algorithm are briefly described here; the original paper by Dhillon gives a deeper look at the information-theoretic concepts underlying it.

The initial assignment of words to clusters is done by allocating two sets of empty clusters of equal size. Words which occur more often in nonspam messages are randomly assigned to one of the ``ham clusters''. Similarly, spam words are assigned to a spam cluster. This concept of nonspam clusters vs. spam clusters is only meaningful during initialization, since the clustering algorithm will move the words between clusters to minimize the clustering metric. In the final clustering, some clusters may contain both ham and spam words.

After the initialization step the algorithm becomes iterative. On each pass through the loop words are moved between clusters to decrease the value of a divergence metric. This metric quantifies the average dissimilarity of the words in each cluster. Minimizing this value thus maximizes the intra-cluster similarities. Iteration then continues until the divergence metric does not change more than a fractional amount from the previous iteration.

The implementation of the clustering algorithm is done in three major blocks: collection of data, clustering of data, and output of clusters. Each message body is initially scanned and tokenized into words. The clustering function takes as input the desired number of clusters. The clusters are initialized as described above. To reduce the number of candidate words to a manageable size, the implementation only considers words which occur more than a minimum number of times over all the messages.

The iterative algorithm then executes. After a number of iterations the clustering converges. The number of clusters output by the algorithm may be less than requested, because some clusters become empty during the iteration of the main loop. Only non-empty clusters are output at this phase.

The final step is generating the feature vectors. Using the cluster file generated by the clustering algorithm, each message body in the corpus is again scanned, matching each scanned word to its cluster. This is done by loading the cluster file into a hash table which maps each word to its cluster number, which is a nearly constant-time operation. Since each word in the message must be examined once, the time it takes to scan a message is thus roughly linear in the number of words in the message.

4 Combined Approaches

It is sensible to consider combinations of feature detectors. The comparison is complicated. As noted previously, larger feature sets slow recognition and learning: it may be better to use more features of a given type than to combine features of several types.

For the feature detectors examined here, combinations are less problematic. The SpamAssassin detector operates on header information (and by all accounts does well at this): the other detectors operate only on body information. The clustering detector is believed to perform strictly better than the gain-based detector, since it is essentially a superset of it. Thus, there are five combinations that are leading candidates for examination: the three detectors alone; SpamAssassin plus gain-based; and SpamAssassin plus clustering.

6 Related Work

Work on text classification in general, and spam detection in particular, dates back many years in the machine learning community. For example, Androutsopoulos has worked with a number of researchers on machine learning spam filters [1,19]. A good overview of machine learning for e-mail classification is in Itskevitch's M.S. Thesis [9].

These approaches first caught the wide attention of the open source community with Graham's web article (Sec. 4.2.3). This article and Robinson's commentary on it inspired a number of implementations of semi-Bayesian word-based filters, many of which can be found at

At the same time, non-learning-based approaches to spam filtering have also been widely attempted. The SpamAssassin tool is a freely-available Perl-based spam filter that combines hand-crafted features using a perceptron. Initially, the perceptron weights were hand-tuned: more recently, a genetic algorithm was used to train the weights on a synthetically composited corpus. Oddly, the SpamAssassin authors have apparently not used a traditional gradient-descent approach to tune their perceptron: it was this omission that inspired the authors of this paper to begin the research reported here. SpamAssassin combines its primary feature data with other sources of information, such as spam databases and word data, to produce a final classification.

7 Corpora

Table 1: Percentage Error Rate In Classification
  $\mathbf{\oplus}$ T $\mathbf{\oplus}$ T $\mathbf{\oplus}$ T $\mathbf{\oplus}$ T $\mathbf{\oplus}$ T
synthetic (7500 ham, 7500 spam)
hamming 0.40 7.11 2.10 4.45 1.00 4.86 1.29 2.56 0.68 2.80
nbayes 0.10 8.12 0.12 11.30 0.02 8.86 0.52 3.98 0.14 3.08
graham 1.70 5.98 0.52 9.70 0.76 3.74 0.00 47.64 0.06 9.50
neuron 1.60 5.90 2.66 4.40 1.90 3.30 1.40 2.58 1.84 2.68
dtree 0.53 6.02 3.33 5.41 2.08 4.23 2.20 3.86 1.88 3.52
net 0.30 5.28 1.04 6.38 0.48 3.16 0.98 2.68 0.54 3.28
personal (8400 ham, 6600 spam)
hamming 0.36 3.27 1.33 5.44 0.59 2.66 1.14 2.49 0.29 2.89
nbayes 0.46 2.46 2.56 14.48 1.26 4.56 2.96 5.42 0.60 1.94
graham 3.58 4.36 3.94 9.06 4.56 5.44 0.00 38.14 0.14 3.32
neuron 1.32 2.28 2.04 6.84 0.76 2.08 1.24 2.72 0.96 1.98
dtree 0.58 2.24 2.23 6.53 1.14 2.51 1.91 3.68 1.46 2.76
net 0.28 2.20 0.90 6.10 0.48 2.08 0.86 2.68 0.40 2.06
lingspam (1924 ham, 481 spam)
hamming 0.87 9.86 0.87 5.24 0.78 7.05 0.78 4.06 0.44 4.87
nbayes 0.25 5.99 0.87 5.24 0.50 4.49 3.25 5.12 1.50 3.75
graham 0.87 7.74 1.25 2.62 0.75 3.25 3.00 6.24 2.50 5.12
neuron 1.87 5.49 1.87 3.75 0.75 3.25 9.11 11.61 8.49 10.74
dtree 0.94 8.24 2.12 6.12 1.03 5.06 1.37 4.24 1.37 3.50
net 1.12 6.10 0.87 3.86 1.00 4.36 0.50 3.11 0.25 2.24
spamassassin (6948 ham, 1737 spam)
hamming 0.16 3.28 1.00 6.22 0.15 2.95 1.06 3.30 0.30 3.13
nbayes 3.90 5.35 4.73 13.75 4.66 7.22 6.80 10.02 5.08 6.42
graham 5.01 6.15 10.50 13.26 6.98 7.56 7.50 9.64 6.04 6.77
neuron 1.00 2.14 2.49 9.95 0.76 2.38 7.25 10.12 9.46 11.88
dtree 0.59 2.66 1.68 6.48 1.73 2.80 1.75 3.30 0.86 2.25
net 0.62 2.59 1.07 7.15 0.28 2.59 0.62 3.49 0.38 2.38

The problem of selecting a corpus for evaluation of learning algorithms for spam detection is a difficult one. One challenge is that private e-mail is rarely available for public study: thus, other sources of ham must be found if the corpus is to be made publically available. For evaluation purposes, four corpora were assembled.

The first corpus consists of the first author's e-mail over a recent two-year period, a total of 15,498 messages. These messages were randomly sampled to select exactly 15,000 messages for ease of use. This corpus has the advantage of verisimilitude: most studies have used only corpora consisting of synthetic combinations of messages from public mailing lists and spam databases. The corpus is about 50% spam: a percentage higher than indicated in older publications on the subject [3], but consistent with current anecdotal evidence. For privacy reasons, the corpus itself is not publically available: however, the instance data derived from the corpus by feature recognition is.

The second corpus is a total of 15,000 messages drawn equally from two sources: 50% of the messages are ham from the X Window System developer's Xpert mailing list; 50% are spam from the Annexia spam archive [2]. The a priori accuracy rate of this corpus is much lower; there are frequent classification errors in both data sets. This corpus is publically available.

The third corpus is the Lingspam corpus, a synthetic corpus of 2405 messages. 80% of these messages are ham from a linguistics mailing list: the rest is spam. The corpus has been made publically available by Ion Androutsopoulos, and used in publications by several authors: it thus provides a basis for comparison with published work.

The fourth corpus is used to tune SpamAssassin, and consists of 8686 messages, 80% ham and the remainder spam, from a variety of sources. It is deemed useful for comparison with a fielded freely-available spam filter, as well as being a robust corpus useful in its own right.

8 Evaluation

Each of the algorithms reported in Sec. 4.2 has been implemented in C and Perl by the authors. These implementations are freely available as noted at the end of this document. Accuracy and speed of the implementations have been measured on a 1.8AGHz AMD box with 512MB of main memory, running Debian ``Woody'' with kernel 2.4.19.

The preliminary nature of the measurements reported here should be emphasized. There are an enormous number of interesting experiments that can be run given the sample setup, and there is an enormous amount of work that can be done to improve the design and implementation of these spam filters. Nonetheless, the measurements in this section serve both to provide a gross comparison between various learners and detectors, and to illustrate some of the issues that arise in practical machine learning. Figures 1, 2 and 3 show some of the measurements made. Those measurements are good illustrations of the power of experimental data in elucidating machine learning issues.

Table 1 shows the classification accuracy of the algorithms on the sample corpora. The columns labeled $\oplus$ and T are false positive and total error percentages respectively. (The false positives are shown as percentage of total messages, rather than percentage of ham messages; they thus reflect the mix of messages in the given corpus.) The columns labeled SA, BD, and CL denote the use of the SpamAssassin, Body Dictionary, and CLustering feature detector: the SA+BD and SA+CL columns denote the use of combined feature sets. All programs were run using default parameter settings. Statistics reported are worst of 10 runs, in accordance with PAC theory [21]. Two-thirds of the corpus have been used for training (and validation when required), while the final third has been used for classification: a new random split has been used for each run, with all programs being run over the same 10 splits. The gain threshold of the body word detector was selected to give a maximum of a few hundred features across all corpora. This seemed to give sufficient accuracy for evaluation purposes, but more experimentation in this area would be prudent.

Table 1 is unfortunately difficult to read. Nonetheless, it contains a great deal of useful data, from which several conclusions can be drawn. While the differences between classifiers and between feature detectors are quite significant, it can fairly be said that overall the accuracy of the filtering systems is similar. The exceptions reveal a number of interesting phenomena.

The more complex classifiers seem to be consistently better than the simpler ones. In particular, the neural net is the most consistently strong classifier: the decision tree learner also produces good results. As expected, the combined feature detectors tend to be stronger overall than their components: the SA detector appears to work well with most classifiers and corpora.

Specific classifiers seem to have trouble with specific corpora or detectors. Note particularly the 100% false negative rate of the graham classifier on the personal and synthetic corpora with the CL detector. It is believed that this anomaly is not a program defect, but results from a peculiarity of the CL feature set: for these large inputs, the detector tends to group all of the spam words into just one cluster, while the ham words have a large number of clusters. Graham's heuristic does not cope well with this case: the large number of ham features swamps the signal from the much more significant spam features. The graham classifier appears to be less strong than the nbayes classifier overall, but not dramatically so: the choice of corpus and features appears to matter significantly. The hamming detector appears to be a good, reliable detector overall, and may actually be a reasonable choice in situations where its slow classification rate can be reduced or ignored.

Table 2: Feature Detection Time
  s/Kmsg s/MB
SA 1784 391
BD 15.2 1.9
CL 14.0 1.7

Table 2 shows feature detection time for the synthetic corpus. The BD classifier gain threshold is 0.05. Times shown are wall clock seconds per 1000 messages and seconds per megabyte (1,048,576 bytes). Neither the BD nor the CL detector is significantly optimized for performance--significant improvements could be expected in practice. These times suggest why work on alternate feature detectors and an overall move away from SpamAssassin may be important in the future.

Table 3: Training and Classification Time
  T C
hamming 0.00 44.05
nbayes 0.65 0.06
graham 0.65 0.02
neuron 10.66 0.00
dtree 5.45 0.00
net 140.35 0.13

Table 3 shows training and classification time for the synthetic corpus and SA feature detector. Training and classification times are exclusive of feature detection and other times. All times are CPU seconds per 1000 instances, and are the average of 10 runs. Times shown as 0.00 are less than 0.01 seconds per 1000 instances, in other words in excess of 100,000 instances per second. As expected, the neuron and dtree detectors require a moderate training period. The net detector is slow to train (although not unusably so). The hamming detector as implemented is probably too slow to use for server filtering, although it would work fine for filtering an individual's messages.

9 Deployment

The initial integration target for the work described here has been SpamAssassin, a rule-based mail filter written in Perl by a team including Justin Mason. SpamAssassin is an open source project distributed under Perl's Artistic license: it was hoped that it would be a good basis for third-party extension. The mechanism by which SpamAssassin classifies a message is via handcrafted header and body text analysis rules, along with blacklist/whitelist support (lists of addresses to automatically deny or accept) and use of a spam tracking database such as Vipul's Razor. After the test suite has been run, the mail message can optionally be marked with a spam header for easy processing by a user's mail reader. The package is primarily made up of libraries of test and mail handling code, forming an API that allows for easy integration with mail applications on multiple platforms. Various command line and daemon scripts for interfacing with the API are also supplied.

The SpamAssassin API libraries consist of two main sections: code to run each of the tests, and the engine that calls the test code and combines (and scores) the results. The text analysis portion of the testing code is comprised of regular expressions that are matched against the headers and body of the mail message. SpamAssassin allows for quite a bit of flexability by coding many of the tests in user editable configuration files--tests can thus be added or modified without change to the Perl libraries themselves. Unfortunately, the format of the configuration file only allows for the specification of new tests involving single regular expressions.

The classification engine is responsible for handling mail input and output, including mail message headers and body text. It also supports routines to update test parameters. For example, adding and removing mail addresses from accept and deny lists, or reporting a mail message to collaborative spam tracking databases online. After running the full suite of classification tests, the testing engine scores the mail message based on the results of each of the tests. If the message is classified as spam the engine takes appropriate action, such as rewriting the mail message to include easily recognizable tags for the user in the subject line and message body, as well as adding an extra header for the user's mail user-agent to automatically refile spam messages.

Recently, the SpamAssassin team has added support for classification of mail messages using a ``Bayesian-like form of probability-analysis'', apparently based on a Graham/Robinson (Sec. 4.2.3) or Naïve Bayes detector. This extension seems to allow for online learning and storage of new message characteristics, although the documentation is incomplete at the time of this writing. While the Bayesian extension appears to implement the same algorithm as the Naïve Bayesian classifier described here, it is embedded in the SpamAssassin code. This makes it hard to inspect, and requires modifying the SpamAssassin code itself to make changes.

One straightforward way to integrate the classifiers with the SpamAssassin package is to convert them to Perl. Currently the perceptron learner has been completely converted and an offline classification mode has been implemented. The SpamAssassin feature set is used as training input to this learner. The other learners are only partially integrated: the classification phase is available to SpamAssassin. A SpamAssassin-style manually-weighted perceptron is used to integrate the classifiers, including SpamAssassin's built-in classifier. New feature detectors can be integrated with the setup and used by all of the learning classifiers.

Modifications to the SpamAssassin code have been kept as minimal as possible. Code implementing a linear perceptron has been added to the check() method of the Mail::SpamAssassin module to allow as many classifiers to be run on a message as desired: the result of each classifier is weighted in a user-specified fashion. Parameters have been added to the new() method of the module to select combinations of classifiers and feature detectors, weights for the classifier's output, and a perceptron threshold value used to make the final classification decision on the e-mail message.

Modifications have also been made to the Mail::SpamAssassin::PerMsgStatus module. Parameters have been added to the new() method specifying the existing (and allowable) feature detectors and classifiers. Each feature detector is associated with the method implementing it as well as the dictionary file required to create a feature vector. Each classifier is associated with a file containing state information required for classification (a listing of current weights for the single neuron learner, for example). Methods have been added to implement the feature detectors, or retrieve the classification test results from SpamAssassin's builtin feature detector, as well as to encode the returned feature sets according to the specified dictionary. A _psam_check() method has also been added: the method calls the indicated classifier with the created feature vector and returns the result.

As of this writing, the integrated system is close to being ready to submit to the SpamAssassin team for review and integration. Unfortunately, the runtime overhead associated with the Perl implementation of SpamAssassin and the learners and classifiers has proven to be a significant problem. Thus, the direction to take from here is unclear. Finding a simpler and more efficient open source framework is currently under consideration as an alternative, as is building yet another mail classification framework.

10 Future Work and Conclusions

It has been said that good research raises more questions than it answers. By that standard, the research reported here has been successful indeed. Much more work is needed on the corpora: it would be nice to establish a trustworthy and representative test corpus of about 10,000 messages for future work. Validation and tuning of both the feature detectors and classifiers is badly needed to establish confidence in their correctness and to understand ideal operating parameters for them. Using ensembles of detectors, detector biasing techniques, and other advanced methods should be explored to improve accuracy. An integrated mail-filtering system should be built, and overall system accuracy and performance evaluated. An anonymous referee of this paper suggested that the learners and classifiers should be packaged in a library for use in this and other projects: this is an excellent idea and will be implemented.

Supervised machine learning is an effective technique for spam filtering. The methods described in this paper provide the basis for reasonably accurate, efficient classification of messages as ham and spam. Freely-available software implementors interested in spam filtering are encouraged to take advantage of these techniques (and their more sophisticated cousins) to help control the spam deluge.


Special thanks to: the Usenix Association and the Portland State University Computer Science Department for enabling the student authors of this paper to attend the conference; Carl Worth for shepherding the paper; Keith Packard and Mike Haertel for help and advice (as usual) with code and algorithms; and Jeff Brandt for valuable ideas, criticism, encouragement, and help with corpora.


The instance data and implementations used in this work are freely available under an MIT-style license at


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