Qwest Raises the Security Bar For ISPs

Opinion: Rather than risk losing a customer ISPs will generally tolerate a lot of abuse against third parties. Qwest says things will be different from now on.

Just over a year ago I wrote a column about Trend Micros ICSS (InterCloud Security Service). Its a service to assist ISPs in detecting bots on its customer networks and removing them. An extremely cool idea I thought; perhaps the time was upon us when ISPs would actually take measures to clean up their networks?

It took a year, but the first big step has been taken. Qwest Communications announced recently that it will take such measures. From what I understand, Qwest is not using ICSS for its service, but it sounds similar.

What Qwest is doing is something like NAC for ISP clients, however there are a lot of differences, so I dont want to take that analogy too far. The system actively monitors clients for behaviors characteristic of malware; spamming, for example. When it determines that the system meets its profile, it takes action.

The monitoring is entirely at the network level. No software is installed on any PC, nor are there any active probes of them. SMTP and HTTP are blocked; other services like POP3 and VOIP are unaffected. Attempts to send e-mail, legitimately or not, will fail. This is something like the "walled garden" idea of NAC implementations where the user is isolated from the rest of the network and expected to spend their time cleaning up the system.

/zimages/5/28571.gifLarry Seltzer argues that, as an ISP, Verizon has a bad reputation for abusive behavior left unchecked on their network. Click here to read more.

The next time the user attempts to connect to the Web they are presented with a special page that warns of a possible "virus" on the computer. (Their use of the word virus on this page is technically off, but theyre trying to be colloquial and accessible, not strict-geek.) The page says that malicious traffic has been monitored coming from this computer or another on the same account; they cant know which computer behind your router is the dirty one.

The page gives you three options: remove the virus now, remove it later, or assert that you have already removed it. In the first case, they enter a removal process, the details of which I dont have, but it could be something like Trend Micros HouseCall. In the second case you are allowed to connect even though your system is infected, but you will be given the same warning again soon, and after a few times you wont have the "later" option anymore. In the third case, I presume they let you back on the Internet and monitor you once again.

In the second case, where they actually block out users who refuse to clean up their systems, weve got big news. Will they really shut off customers? Anecdotal evidence will come out of course, but we wont know how many times they really had to do this unless Qwest volunteers the numbers.

And perhaps they figure they have a clean network. Thats certainly what Trend Micro seems to think. Its report of spam sorted by the ISP of the sending system doesnt even show Qwest in the first 100 entries. (Perhaps its under some other name, but "QWEST" and other associated names, like US West, arent there.) Lots of other big American ISPs, like Verizon (at number 2), Comcast, AT&T, and Road Runner, show up.

Of course, if this is like healthy people getting their checkups, then the benefit to Internet "public health" is marginal at best. What we need is the really dirty ISPs, like Verizon, to step up.

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

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