An open-and-shut case

An open-and-shut case

For our “protection”, the University’s IT-Department recently restricted the types of attachments that could be received via e-mail. Most affected by this were the older Microsoft Office documents (e.g., .doc or .xls files), which could be compromised with vicious macros and other similarly evil stuff. Instead, for the past year or so, only e-mails with their Generation-X relatives (i.e., .docx or .xlsx files) and other IT-approved file types as attachments would pass muster and land happily in people’s inboxes.

Fine ...

Well, all was fine, until I had an issue where the University’s e-mail server bounced an e-mail back at me because the attachment, a supposedly legal .docx file, was somehow “suspicious”. (With heavy emphasis and foreshadowing on “suspicious”.) Fortunately, the e-mail letting me know that my message had bounced (the receipt of such feedback, unfortunately, being by no means a given) conveniently indicated that I could contact the IT-Services Help Desk should I want to get more information and help on this particular issue.

I wanted and so I did. Particularly because this document was derived from an important template of mine that I have to use over and over and over again.

The response from IT-Services was actually fairly quick (cf. German efficiency). After chiding me softly for not including the offending file, they pointed out the “handy” solution of uploading all such nasty documents in the future to the University’s convenient cloud-storage system, generating a link to said document (in said cloud-storage system), and including said link (to said document (in said cloud-storage system)) in the e-mail. Issue solved and case closed.

(As an explanation, each e-mail to the Service Desk is assigned an individual case number to which you are to refer to at all times. Under penalty of something or other. The case will be kept open either until it is resolved or the Service Desk responds to your e-mail, whichever comes first. Seriously. I’ve almost literally gotten responses from them that said 1. “We don’t know.” and 2. “Case closed.”.)

But, somewhat uncharacteristically, I digress. (And, don’t even get me started on why I can upload this same diseased file to the cloud-storage system for someone else to download and sabotage their computer, but not infect them directly by e-mail.) Let’s dissect that response instead ...

  1. If I have a document that causes an e-mail to bounce, I can’t really attach it to another e-mail, even one to ask why the first one was bouncing, and have any chance of that new e-mail going through, now can I?
  2. I literally have no idea who this solution is supposed to be handy for. (And the word “handy” really was used. Well, not as such. The e-mail was in German and “Handy” in German means “mobile phone” so “geschickt” was used instead, which does mean “handy”. But in German. Not in English.) A one-step process (send an e-mail) suddenly involves a three-step “solution” (upload, get link, send an e-mail).

Second try.

I write back (using my case number to avoid the unstated and probably unseemly penalties) pointing out the inherent contradiction of including the attachment in the first place and, hold your breath, using the “handy” solution proffered to provide them with a copy of the illegal, legal .docx file.

And I waited (albeit not holding my breath) ...

Again, the answer was painlessly rapid: 1. “We don’t know.” and 2. “Case closed.”

Ok, I’m being a bit unfair with (1). The actual answer was something along the lines of the document probably containing some illegal formatting even if it is a legal file type. Or, to paraphrase, “we don’t know.”

At this point, I figured that I was lucky to have escaped alive and (mostly) sane and simply accepted (2). I could have pointed out that it’s actually easy enough for IT types to insert some code to give some vague hint as to what naughty bit of formatting is being flagged by their program. (I mean, the base code must literally be something like “if the attachment uses Comic Sans as a font, then bounce” so it’s really easy to rewrite the last bit as “then bounce and say ‘Ewww! Comic Sans’”.) But, instead, I decided the more direct and effective approach was to “simply” rebuild the template from scratch.

2. Case closed.

(Stand: 17.11.2020)