Meet Verizon, King of ISP Spammers

Opinion: ISPs like Verizon don't have an economic incentive to stem the rising tide of spam.

The biggest spammer in the world is a huge, imposing presence in the Internet, known for mercilessly wiping out opposition. China? Russia? No, you guessed it: Its Verizon.

The numbers come from Trend Micro, one of the biggest security companies in the world. Ive known Dave Rand, chief technology officer of Trend Micro Internet Content Security, for years. He is a pioneer of much basic software for e-mail and other computing essentials, and a founder of MAPS (Mail Abuse Prevention System) with Paul Vixie, another computing pioneer. The MAPS RBL, the blacklist with perhaps the most clout on the Internet, is now also with Trend Micro. I sat down to lunch with Dave on June 20.

Dave doesnt have a happy outlook on Internet security. The way he sees it, things are bad and generally getting worse. When I suggested to him that the whole subject of spam had gotten boring and that the problem was a stable one, he disagreed. The numbers, believe it or not, are still rising, and now virtually all spam comes from compromised computers on ISP networks.

/zimages/2/28571.gifResearchers at Trend Micro are reporting that as many as 10,000 Web sites have been infected with malicious code that redirects unsuspecting users to a server booby-trapped with drive-by exploits. Click here to read more.

Verizon is hardly the only ISP that doesnt care about spam being sent out of its network. Its just the worst example and a good illustration of why ISPs dont care about client systems that are spam bots.

Why dont they care? They dont get in trouble for having infected systems on their networks. They can develop a bad reputation on blacklists like the RBL, but to put it bluntly, this affects their customers a lot more than it affects them.

And lets get something straight here: They know about the bots on their networks. Do you think theyre stupid? Of course they know. Lots of outsiders (like Trend Micro) who go through the trouble of looking at the traffic can tell where the bots are. Obviously the large ISPs, and obviously Verizon among them, know about the spam being sent, and other abuse being performed, from their network.

Verizon could do something about the problem, but it would be expensive. It would require the company to antagonize customers by shutting them off the net. If it wanted to go to the trouble, it would require spending time and money to help customers clean up their systems. Verizon would rather have as little contact with customers as possible. Customer contact is expensive. For DSL, it doesnt even want to go to the customer site to install anything. (I have Verizon FiOS though, and I must say there was a whole crew here all day, although it was basically the TV that took all the time.)

You might say that the ISPs should care because of all the bandwidth being consumed by the outbound spam, but in fact it costs them nothing, or very little, and certainly less than it would cost to fix the problem. The main connections for large ISPs like Verizon are all symmetric pipes, and bandwidth at an ISP is overwhelmingly downstream. Therefore upstream bandwidth is relatively underutilized. A company like Verizon is certainly not starving for bandwidth.

There are ISPs that try to do the right thing. My other ISP (yes, I have two at the moment, long story) is Speakeasy.net. When Speakeasy finds out about users performing bot-like activity, it contacts them and tells them about it. A simple, yet considerate thing to do. Speakeasy may have a relatively sophisticated audience that can handle such contact better than most, but at least it tries. It says it will eventually shut people down, although it tries to address the situation short of that.

What should ISPs do about infected systems? Ideally they should use the NAC technique of putting them in a "walled garden," an isolated network from which they can retrieve updates and anti-virus fixes but not bother the rest of the Internet. Unfortunately, the tools to perform such maneuvers on an ISP-sized network arent available. ("Because theres no demand," Dave says to me, and we both laugh.) ISPs dont make Microsoft-like margins on their customers, and whatever increases their support costs decreases their bottom lines.

Im still not completely sold that spam is getting appreciably worse these days; others, like Trend Micro competitor McAfee, disagree. ("The total volume of trap-based spam has stayed fairly flat during the first part of the year.") But no informed observer would disagree about the scale of the problem or that bots on consumer ISP networks are the heart of it. Economics works against a solution, the law isnt addressing the problem, and technological approaches are not mainstream.

Time for a vacation.

Security Center Editor Larry Seltzer has worked in and written about the computer industry since 1983.

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