Ad hoc malware police besiege net neutrality
When does crime fighting become censorship?
Analysis Over the past couple of weeks, white hat netizens have scored two important victories in their tireless quest to clean up some of the internet's darkest recesses. While the events are encouraging, forgive us if we don't jump for joy.
The first win came when Directi - a registrar criticized for making anonymous domain-name registration available to an inordinate number of scammers - agreed to beef up its policing of malicious sites. The Mumbai provider of a service known as PrivacyProtect now promises to suspend abusive services within 24 hours of receiving a legitimate complaint. It's also agreed to completely suspend the service to Estdomains and other customers accused of using it to protect owners of illegal websites.
Malware opponents scored an equally decisive victory last week when Intercage - a California-based network provider with more than 30,000 internet protocol addresses - said both of its longtime upstream providers were canceling service. The terminations came in response to a report that Intercage enables a rogue's gallery of customers to punt spam, malware and online (illegal) pharmaceuticals. Late last week, the company came close to going dark, but at the 11th hour was saved when a provider called Pacific Internet Exchange agreed to take it on.
Yes, the wins may make it harder for bad guys to spread malware, spam and illegal scams, but at what cost to a robust and unfettered internet? The inability of traditional law enforcement to crack down on online scammers - or for private individuals to target them with civil lawsuits - has unleashed a new breed of enforcement that turns registrars and webhosts into de facto gatekeepers. By and large, these groups are honest and well intentioned. But their lack of due process has implications for free speech, net neutrality and other concerns that ought not be trumped by our zeal to stamp out cybercrime.
Doubting Thomases need look no further than last year's summary termination of a popular security website by registrar GoDaddy. It came at the request of MySpace, which claimed a single page on the Seclists.org listed account names and passwords purporting to belong to users of the social networking site.
"It's a dangerous thing," Eric Goldman, a professor specializing in cyber law at Santa Clara University, says of the expectation that registrars and network providers make legal judgments about their customers. "Once they become the police, they are the only power brokers that matter. Their decisions will affect billions of dollars of investment decisions."
Fred Von Lohman, a senior staff attorney at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, agrees the practice is a proverbial slippery slope.
"There's all kinds of groups who want to take all kinds of websites off the internet," he says. "Copyright owners are on the top of that list. The same thing is true of the Chinese government. I'm sure they would love to persuade domain name registrars to pull the plug on certain websites."
Indeed, looking to more established industries, it's hard to find a precedent to the arrangement that's become standard online. Few expect phone and electric companies to disconnect customers accused of engaging in drug dealing or organized crime. And in many jurisdictions, landlords who evict nuisance tenants must first submit extensive evidence establishing that there's illegal behavior.
Not so on the internet, where private groups like Spamhaus make pronouncements that exert a huge influence over some of the world's biggest network providers. Spamhaus CEO Steve Linford, who contacted us after this story was first published, remains unapologetic about his organization's blocking of Intercage and pointed us to this page offering some rather unflinching criticism of Intercage.
"The person who runs Atrivo/Intercage, Emil Kacperski is an expert at playing the 'surprised janitor', unaware of every new criminal enterprise found on his servers and keen to show he gets rid of some criminals once their activities on his network are exposed," the writeup contends. It also links to this page listing some of the specific transgressions Intercage has been accused of.
(Editor's note: A previous version of this story referred to Spamhaus as an "anonymous group." While the group declines to name several senior team members and volunteers, Linford has always publicly revealed his role as CEO. We regret use of the word "anonymous.")
Similarly, GoDaddy and just about every other registrar reserve the right to pull the plug on customers for any reason. On the net, these groups often get to play judge, jury and executioner with little transparency or recourse.
Next page: Piercing the Online Rat's Nest
@ A. Cowherd
" If intercage hadn't found an 11th hour lifeline, their IP block would have been reassigned to someone else. What then? I understand why you're blocking an entire subnet at your end but it leads to problems in cases like this."
IF it gets reassigned, and IF an employee requests that I open up that block, and IF I decide that the employee's request is valid, then I'll open the block. That's a lot of ifs. Hasn't happened yet, and I've been aggressively blocking for ten+ years.
Yes, the employees of the various companies know they can call me if they have issues mailing or accessing j-random.site. I get about one call a week, it's always either "no, you can't do that with the company's computers" or PBKAC.
" We've had our IP for years hosted with a perfectly respectable firm in the US, yet for a while two years ago we were having trouble getting our mail out. Turns out SORBS had decided our IP might be dynamic because the DNS TTL (which we had no control over) was under some arbitrary minimum they'd just decided on. That one only took me a week to fix, thanks to a responsive ISP getting in touch with them."
You don't have control of your own DNS? There's your problem ... I understand that email is not guaranteed to be delivered (read the RFCs if you don't believe me), but if an organization is making extensive use of email, it should at least stack the deck in its own favo(u)r ...
" My point is overzealous sysadmins can and do cause problems - so tread lightly. Yes, it will increase your spam marginally, but you're filtering it already right? Overshoot the mark and your users will just work around you by using hotmail etc."
I don't find blocking access to and from malware, kitty pR0n, pumpndump, 419 scams, pill pushers and the like "overzealous". As for spam, what's that? Hotmail? No. It's blocked. If if the employees (not users, employees!) try to work around the blocks using proxies (I have an ever growing block list of proxies ...) they get a warning. Strike two, they are fired. These are COMPANY computers. We do work with them, we don't play on them.
Stop the problem at the source
While this could go around in circles for days, we tend to overlook the fact that the domain name registration process has been made as simple as possible. No real checks are done if you wish to register a domain, in fact some "resellers" advertise they will never ask your name so that it could never end up in the hands of law enforcement.
I could use a gift credit card to register a domain right now using the name Margaret Thatcher of some fake UK address while I am sitting in anywhere but the UK, shop on the internet for a telephone number and register using a free Gmail account as a point of contact. Then I abuse the free privacy provided in the competitive registrar market or simply use MelbourneIT with their bastardized whois showing a name you supply and their address. While I am at it I use a proxy. Now I am set to go phishing/scamming/herding. Total cost less than $10.00, however free domains do exist as well (MS Online). Free hosting with email facilities is to be had as well.
Fact: criminal domains are hardly ever registered with valid registration details.
I has never been easier to register a domain, real checks simply do not exist for most registrars.
So why should we then use excuses as to why a domain should be holy? In fact the difficulty with which domains are normally canceled is exactly what I would count on in my registrar selection process if I wish to use it for criminal actions.
To turn this picture around, law enforcement have their hands full. International LEA cooperation simply does not exist for the bulk of the victims. The UDRP is not the answer for criminal websites that sprout up faster than mushrooms. Once I have been conned the chance of recovering my money is virtually nil. If my identity is stolen I have forever lost my privacy. In fact I would have to spend more money, much more than $10.00 to get back on track and undo the damage done to me. People lose their livelihoods, privacy etc via malicious domains.
There are groups that specialize in certain abuse type. Domains are not canceled merely based on suspicion as was implied, it is not a free for all, registrars do not accept "hey - joeblogs.com is bad , terminate the domain" statements. Registrars are not stupid. In fact it takes time for them to know they can trust you and that trust is based on detailed abuse reports with evidence and a lot of hard work after ensuring a site has not been hacked and then abused. You only have to get it wrong once to destroy that trust.
We also need define unacceptable. Pornography may be acceptable, child pornography is not. Political sites are acceptable, phishing is not, 419 scams is not, malware is not, money mule domains not, escrow/couriers scams not. Especially unacceptable are those domains that are used to entrap an unsuspecting victim at home via email or in drive by infections.
We can draw a clear line between criminal and geographic/social undesirability. Registrars dare not touch the second group, but it is and should be open season on the first group.
If intercage hadn't found an 11th hour lifeline, their IP block would have been reassigned to someone else. What then? I understand why you're blocking an entire subnet at your end but it leads to problems in cases like this.
We've had our IP for years hosted with a perfectly respectable firm in the US, yet for a while two years ago we were having trouble getting our mail out. Turns out SORBS had decided our IP might be dynamic because the DNS TTL (which we had no control over) was under some arbitrary minimum they'd just decided on. That one only took me a week to fix, thanks to a responsive ISP getting in touch with them.
My point is overzealous sysadmins can and do cause problems - so tread lightly. Yes, it will increase your spam marginally, but you're filtering it already right? Overshoot the mark and your users will just work around you by using hotmail etc.