Escalating attacks by hackers and other criminals on consumer, government, and business computers has increased the need to find viable defenses. Now, officials in the Obama administration have met with industry leaders and experts to look for new ways to increase online safety while balancing securing the Internet with guarding people’s privacy and civil liberties.
One option the government and industry experts are reportedly reviewing is an Australian technology that enables consumers to get warnings from their ISP (Internet Service Provider) if their computer is taken over and used in a botnet or other crime by hackers. (Learn more about botnets, see my blog What are Bots, Zombies, and Botnets?)
White House cybersecurity coordinator Howard Schmidt told The Associated Press that the United States is looking at a number of voluntary ways to help the public and small businesses better protect themselves online. Note the inclusion of the word voluntary – any move toward Internet regulation or monitoring by either the government or the industry could set off fierce consumer protests.
If a company is willing to give its customers better online security, the American public will go along with that, Schmidt said. “Without security you have no privacy. And many of us that care deeply about our privacy look to make sure our systems are secure,” Schmidt said in an interview, adding that ISP’s, he added, can help “make sure our systems are cleaned up if they’re infected and keep them clean.”
Given U.S. consumer’s fears over monitoring, the government has thus far avoided a potentially controversial aspect of the Australian plan that would allow ISP’s to block or restrict online access of users who fail to clean up their infected computers.
Some efforts to alert and help consumers have begun
At the same time, Comcast Corp. has begun rolling out a program to alert users when the service identifies their computer as being a part of a botnet. The program does not require customers to fix their computers or limit the online usage of people who refuse to do the repairs.
“We don’t want to panic customers. We want to make sure they are comfortable. Beyond that, I hope that we pave the way for others to take these steps” said Cathy Avgiris, senior vice president at Comcast.
Facebook has also taken steps in increasing site security by identifying users with the Koobface virus, and they have partnered with McAfee to help infected users clean the virus off their machines.
Will we see mandatory measures?
Dale Meyerrose, vice president and general manager of Cyber Integrated Solutions at Harris Corporation says voluntary programs will not be enough. “There are people starting to make the point that we’ve gone about as far as we can with voluntary kinds of things, we need to have things that have more teeth in them, like standards,” said Meyerrose. For example, coffee shops or airports might limit their wireless services to laptops equipped with certain protective technology, or ISP’s might qualify for specific tax benefits if they put programs in place.
Australian ISP’s will, as of December, be able to take a range of actions when they have identified an infected computer. These range from issuing warnings, to restricting outbound email, or even temporarily quarantine compromised machines while providing customers with links to help fix the problem.
First, do no harm
Mandating consumer’s computers be safe to use the internet sounds good on the surface – its like requiring all students get inoculated so they don’t infect your child. But there are many layers to consider – what happens if a user’s phone service is part of the internet package – would they be blocked from making emergency calls? What if the computer is core to a business – should an ISP be able to shut down their business? Can cybercriminals leverage a policy like this to disable consumers across the country – giving a rather different meaning to the term ‘denial of service’ attack? What would a consumer’s experience be like if they constantly have to repair their computer to get online?
Advising consumers that their computer is infected, and providing tools for them to clean up the mess is one thing. Following the Australian plan is far more complicated.
And, at the end of the day this still leaves us playing catch up and clean up, rather than figuring out the far more pressing issue – how to thwart criminals from infecting machines in the first place.