The first one I noticed was AOL which began offering McAfee-based security products to its users.
Ive always had the impression that most ISPs just try to get along doing as little as possible for the money you spend on them, but AOL really does a lot of work trying to secure its heavily attacked network.
The good attitude may be spreading, and perhaps anti-virus companies are getting the idea too. Computer Associates, not a household name outside the data center, has started a campaign to get ISPs offering its eTrust security programs.
The companies appear to be offering the software for free along with some free promotional period for updates, after which charges may apply. In effect, the ISPs become a sales and distribution channel for the security company.
Why did this take so long? Its such an obviously good idea, and well worth some marketing bucks for a player like CA who is, to put it bluntly, not a big deal in the anti-virus space.
What feedback I get from users of eTrust is positive, although I personally havent used it.
CAs marketing here for the campaign is all ISP-oriented and would work as well from any other security company:
- It increases consumer confidence by lessening fear of getting viruses or spyware, or being a victim of ID theft.
- By projecting an image as a “secure” ISP, it helps to attract new and retain existing customers.
- It reduces support costs, as ISPs take a large number of calls related to spyware and virus attacks.
Theres a lot of truth to this, although the process of setup for these products probably brings with it a nasty spike in support costs.
Once its up and running, everyone should be a lot happier: the customer, being protected, should have fewer problems.
The ISP gets fewer security-related support issues, and probably makes some money on the ongoing relationship. CA makes money and gets its brand out there.
This isnt exactly a new idea; It must be at least three years since I was talking to anti-virus companies, asking them why they didnt look at the ISPs as a distribution channel. Perhaps they just didnt want to share any of the proceeds.
I Have a Security
It was year 2000 when I wrote, way, way too early, that ISPs were the future for security for consumers. But I had a different idea of how ISPs would provide security: I saw it entirely as network-based feature.
Almost all malware these days comes through the Internet to the user, so it seemed to me that the ISP should be scanning all channels of communication (in effect, all TCP ports) going to or coming from the user.
All users would be protected, not just those who have the security software running on their computers.
Its ambitious in terms of the computing power it would require, but its easy to assert that such computing power will be readily available in the future.
Here we are in 2005, and my prediction is still Buck Rogers stuff. Oh, there are some ISPs who do host-based scanning of mail for malware and spam, but thats less than half the problem.
If ISPs had a network firewall of sorts for their users, they could stop the next Sasser or Blaster from affecting their networks.
Isnt that an appealing idea? Its going to happen in the future. I hope I live long enough to see it.
In the meantime, these new solutions are based on the distribution of traditional client-based security software, and thats good enough. Well, basically it is.
There are interim measures that can improve the situation, and these you might see developing in the next few years.
CA allows the ISP to customize the software both aesthetically and with policies; so for instance, the software could be set to block, by default, all outbound connections on port 25 (SMTP)other than those to the ISPs mail server.
If this is a problem for some users, they can change the policy. The ISP cant go so far as to manage the client systems software by changing policies remotely, except perhaps by pushing updates to the user.
This is the sort of capability one finds in corporate versions of client-based security software, and is removed from consumer versions partly because there is nobody managing the system and partly to protect the higher price of the corporate edition.
It might also be useful for the ISP to check whether the client systems software is running and current. After all, new threats often try to disable security software.
One way ISPs could do this is by implementing a dream I have: network access control for ISP networks. (Yes, I know, I have strange dreams.)
This is a system implemented by a variety of companies (Sygate, for example) for setting configuration requirements for a system before it is allowed on the network.
These can include security requirements such as running anti-virus with current definitions.
Network access control is great stuff, but its only a corporate feature now. I think that eventually one could imagine ISPs offering a special “locked-down” area with access control and other network controls and sell it as a “super secure” ISP area.
It would probably have to be more expensive because it would need more hand-holding, but some users would see value in it.
Its good to see ISPs trying to be part of the solution to our security problems. There are still others, unmentioned in this article, who are most definitely part of the problem.
They still dont care what happens on their users computers and the effect it has on the network and Internet beyond.
I can see them getting displaced in the market by ISPs that do care. At least I can dream about it.
Security Center Editor Larry Seltzer has worked in and written about the computer industry since 1983. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.