Stopping the zombies: introducing the new FCC anti-botnet code

Filed Under: Featured, Malware, Privacy

So, the US FCC has launched their ABC for ISPs at the CSRIC. You catch my drift?

No? Okay, I'll translate. Last week, the US Federal Communications Commission (FCC) launched a new voluntary U.S. Anti-Bot Code of Conduct (ABCs) for Internet Service Providers (ISPs) at their Communications Security, Reliability and Interoperability Council (CSRIC) meeting.

It was developed with extensive industry focus and participation, including input from Verizon, Cox, and Comcast.

It creates new opt-in procedures for ISPs tackling the networks of enslaved zombie computers (computers that can be controlled by unauthorised third parties) used to distribute spam, DDoS attacks and malware.

This self-regulation approach seems to have appealed to many stakeholders, with big ISPs like AT&T, Sprint, Time Warner Cable and CenturyLink getting on board.

According to the code of conduct, the ISPs will benefit from "fewer calls to help desks from customers with infected machines, reduced upstream bandwidth consumption from denial-of-service attacks and spam, increased customer goodwill, and a drop in spam-related complaints from other ISPs."

What company wouldn't want increased customer goodwill, right?
bot guy

So what is the catch? Well, to take part, an ISP has to engage meaningfully with one of the following:

Educate end users

ISPs should make information available to advise end users on preventing and reducing exposure to bot risks. They should provide advice and resources on removing infections from their system too.

Increasing user understanding of botnets is a positive step that seems to incur a minimal burden on ISPs: they can link to existing publicly available guidance on bot management.

Detection of bots

ISPs should deploy "capabilities within their networks that aid in identifying potential bot infections." They could use notifications of potential infections from end users and third parties, like Spamhaus Project Block lists and the US Department of Homeland Security Computer Emergency Readiness Team.

The code of conduct is a bit vague in detailing measures ISPs should take to identify threats. They do call out inadequacies in simple 'pattern matching' detection have trouble differentiating between botnets and legitimate internet applications like 'distributed host-based caching', and online gaming.

Clearly, legitimate services shouldn't be impacted by bot prevention, but improved systems need to be chosen carefully. US-wide ISP use of deep packet interception tools, for example, are not sustainable - the surveillance and privacy implications are too significant.

Notification and remediation for end users

ISPs will notify users of active infections and provide tools, guides and services to prevent, verify and mitigate threats.

Users are often oblivious that their computers are infected. Once they are informed, the removal of bot infections has often been left up to the user, with ISPs lacking the necessary resources to help.

For technical users, disinfection may be an easy exercise, but the average user will be able to get guidance to third party assistance and removal tools by ISPs.

Collaboration within the 'internet ecosystem'

Search providers, hosting companies, security vendors, cloud computing providers and financial services are all to build their strength in numbers against the common bot enemy.

They will do so by sharing methods for gathering intelligence, detecting and mitigating threats, for developing common strategies and identifying relevant technical resources.


Conclusion

It seems the provisions are sometimes quite vague. Because ISPs only have to sign up voluntarily to one of the five sections, it's full overall impact might not be felt.

Perhaps it was a missed opportunity for providing clear guidance for ISPs on suitable privacy-protecting bot detection technologies.

There was great potential to harmonise industry practice and, despite some beneficial advances in the Code, like increasing end-user education, it does feel like the guidelines could have gone further.

Bot net image courtesy of Shutterstock
Digital skull image courtesy of Shutterstock

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3 Responses to Stopping the zombies: introducing the new FCC anti-botnet code

  1. Richard · 750 days ago

    Currently, if a user receives a call claiming to be from their ISP telling them they've got a virus, it's obviously a scam.

    Now, ISPs are going to start calling users and telling them their computer is infected with a virus.

    That won't make it harder for people to spot the scams, will it?!

  2. John at Lincoln · 749 days ago

    This is all about education, and about understanding. If someone refuses to be educated to the threats, there is little that can be done for that user by simply saying 'Oooops, you have a virus'.

    Then if the ISP can detect that a PC on its server is running active BOT software, surely the ISP could isolate that user. Then the user could be redirected to an instructional site 'clean up your act or be shut out of the Internet. - Period!'

    It's only like teaching a child. Eventually, after initial discussions, then logical reasoning, and finally ranting, you take stronger measures to enforce the rules.

    Crikey, after all the ranting that has been done, the press, the PC shops telling people they WILL need anti-virus software - the message is just not getting through.

    @Richard - absolutely right Richard, we have been having a serious spate of scam phone calls from Indian call centers, telling people their PC is infected. If ISP's start doing this they will get short shrift around here.

  3. Nigel · 748 days ago

    ISPs could have stopped or at least severely curtailed the amount of bandwidth robbed by spam long ago if they were REALLY inclined to educate users. How? By offering an incentive (such as a discount on their monthly service fee) to users to educate themselves about email security, and using secure email practices.

    Suppose an ISP sets up an SMTP (outgoing; "Simple Mail Transfer Protocol") server that will not send a message unless it is signed by an identity-trusted signature certificate. That will immediately exclude spammers, who, like cockroaches, scurry for cover when the lights come on. Spammers don't want to be identified.

    Of course, implementation only on the outgoing server side won’t do anything to curtail the amount of spam that's not sent through ISPs, but it would be a start. Gradually, as the incentives persuade more people to educate themselves about secure mail, the same kind of filtering could be implemented on the incoming servers (POP and IMAP). In that case, the server would not accept any message that was not signed by an identity-trusted cert.

    Any large ISP has sufficient resources to establish its own Certificate Authority, and could even perform identity trusting.

    As with any measures that provide a truly effective, long-term solution, a requirement for identity-trusted mail would not solve the problem overnight, and would have to be implemented in phases. But with a genuine focus on user education, ISPs could gradually move the vast majority of users into secure email practices.

    What makes it unlikely is not user resistance, but rather the fact that it would require ISPs to cooperate voluntarily. I'm skeptical that they have that kind of vision or wisdom, even though it would be in their long-term interest to do so. But I’d be delighted to learn that I’m mistaken on that point.

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About the author

Lachlan Urquhart is a legal academic from Edinburgh, Scotland who has completed an LL.B at the University of Edinburgh and recently concluded a postgraduate LL.M in Information Technology and Telecommunications Law at the University of Strathclyde. For more articles from Lachlan, visit his blog.