Dezombifying Australia

This morning it was Sophos’s pleasure to host a meeting for the Internet Industry Association (IIA).

From the text of its website, the IIA is an Australian industry body which aims to promote laws and initiatives which enhance access, equity, reliability and growth of the internet. Or, in the much punchier words of Chief Executive Peter Coroneos, “to build a faster, safer, fairer, more trusted internet in Australia.”

Today’s meeting was an eclectic mix, bringing together ISPs, security vendors, law enforcement, PC support companies and even a browser maker (OK, I mean Microsoft) to discuss the finalisation of the IIA’s proposed eSecurity Code of Practice aimed at getting rid of zombies in Australia.

Some cynics suggest that since Australian internet plans almost always include some sort of data cap – for example, 12Gbyte/month – beyond which a customer pays excess charges or is slowed down to dialup speed, local ISPs are indifferent to infected users in our midst who waste our collective bandwidth by rampant spamming.

Contrary to popular belief, however, ISPs in Australia aren’t in denial about zombies on their networks. For more than four years, the AISI project, operated by the Australian Communications and Media Authority (ACMA), has quietly gone about alerting ISPs to likely zombies amongst their customers, and those ISPs have taken various steps to help the worst offenders to fix their problems.

The IIA’s proposed Code aims to boost this ISP-driven dezombification programme by giving it an industry-wide platform, by encouraging users to support it, and by enlisting the help of the Australian government in promoting it.

“Whoa,” I hear you ask. “The Australian government?” The same government which intends to introduce mandatory internet censorship in a broadly unpopular (and, in my opinion, a truly useless) legislative move?

Fear not.

The IIA’s proposals are quite different. The IIA, and those who support the initiative, recognise that significant dezombification can be achieved without monitoring, tracking, clean-feeding, filtering, sniffing, deep packet inspection or any other buzzwords which reek of privacy violation.

For example, many zombies are identified because they have already sent out huge amounts of spam. Users in this position – compromised by criminally-minded malware – are already in serious privacy trouble, and their zombification is obvious from their existing public-facing internet behaviour.

For their ISPs to contact them personally to indicate that they are at risk (and, at the same time, are polluting the internet around them with their anti-social network behaviour) can only benefit us all. And with an industry-supported programme to help infected users to get themselves out of trouble (or, for a reasonable fee, to be helped out of it) means that we have a fighting chance not only to identify, but also to remediate, the zombies in our midst.

So, the IIA’s dezombification Code has three aims, in descending order of importance:

  • To protect YOU.
  • To protect your friends and neigbours on the internet.
  • To disrupt, as a handy side-effect, some of the cybercriminals’ tools of the trade.

As Peter Coroneos agreed, when I talked to him after today’s meeting, “this is a pro-privacy initiative.” It won’t provide a framework for the government to monitor your communications. It won’t introduce a secretive filtering regimen. It won’t order you about. It won’t mandate that you be excommunicated from the internet if you don’t do what you are told.

But if you do get zombified – when your privacy really will be under threat from cybercriminals keen to grab your data, steal your passwords and spam from your PC – then it might actually give you the rather pleasant surprise of helping you to help yourself.

The eSecurity Code of Practice is expected to emerge mid-year; I urge you to support it when it comes out.

And if you can help persuade the government to support it, too, then we might discourage the legislature from trying to “fix” the internet in Parliament House.