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Australia mulls botnet takedown scheme

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Australia is considering the adopting of a code that would oblige ISPs to contact, and in extreme cases perhaps even disconnect, customers with malware-infested computers.

The voluntary eSecurity Code is designed to put a squeeze on the estimated 100,000 zombies in Australia, each of which might be capable of kicking out 10,000 junk emails a day.

Pilot data sharing schemes in Australia are praised for resulting in the reduction of malware-infected systems. Around 68 ISPs were involved in a 2007 Australian Internet Security Initiative (AISI) programme credited with reports of 10,000 compromises every day. The scheme cost a relatively modest A$4.7 million over four years.

Australia's Internet Industry Association (IIA) is hoping to extend this scheme via a draft code of conduct, set to be applied from December onwards. A consultation scheme on the programme is due to run until 30 October 2009.

Once an ISP following the code has detected a compromised computer, it should contact the customer and offer a clean-up advice. The scheme also covers a reporting system.

ISPs that adhere to the scheme gain the right to display an IIA tortoise logo on their site.

Technology for identifying and blocking compromised clients and for delivering "clean feed" internet traffic exists, but doesn't come cheap. Whether ISPs will be able to create a business model for getting customers to pay the cost of security-enhanced services is a potential obstacle to the scheme. ISPs would be doing the cause of internet hygiene a favour in taking part in a zombie-clampdown scheme, but that's not going to happen if it places them at a competitive disadvantage to those who carry on regardless.

However security experts we polled broadly welcomed the basic idea. "It's a sufficiently large problem that I think it's a worthwhile measure," said Roger Thompson, of net security firm AVG.

Chris Boyd, a security researcher at IM security firm FaceTime, said much would depend on how the scheme works in practice. He also noted the potential danger of "mission creep".

"My biggest problem with cutting off end-users is how they actually apply patches or download the required anti-virus update to remove the infection," he said. "People can't always go round to a neighbour, put it all on a USB stick and dump it on their own machine, especially if their neighbour doesn't use the same AV program.

"I also wonder if smaller ISPs would be deluged in support calls and educational explanations that would probably be better coming from the people pushing for this initiative to roll out in the first place. Rather than disconnection, putting users in a 'walled garden' with access only to their ISP and a number of anti-virus vendors would be a better idea - and we'll need to wait and see if it begins with 'malware' and moves into other forms of traffic that somebody in power deems 'unacceptable'."

The Australian government had been pushing a controversial mandatory internet filtering plan, which resulted in communications minister Stephen Conroy earning the unenviable title of "internet villain of the year" at the 11th annual UK Internet industry awards back in July.

It's possible to imagine a botnet takedown scheme evolving into something more all encompassing, even as a mechanism of bringing back the mandatory internet filtering idea in another guise. The original scheme was scuttled because the ruling Labor Party lacked enough votes in the Australian Senate. ®

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