By Dan Goodin in San Francisco
10th September 2007
Several weeks ago, security researcher Lawrence Baldwin dispatched an
urgent email to abuse handlers at OptimumOnline, the broadband provider
owned by Cablevision, warning that one of its customers stood to lose
more than $60,000 to cyber crooks.
"He's got a keylogger on his system . . . below is a log of the
miscreant viewing the info that was logged from his system while
accessing his [Bank of America] accounts," Baldwin's email read. "Looks
like he's got nearly $60K in there, so a lot at stake. Can you get
someone to phone me that might be able to establish contact with this
The email, which was addressed to a specific handler's email address and
was also copied to OptimumOnline's abuse desk, went on to provide the
user's IP address and enough specifics to suggest Baldwin's claim of a
keylogger was probably accurate. Yet, more than three weeks later,
Baldwin still hasn't heard back from the company.
"Normally, I don't bother because I think this is going to be a complete
waste of time," says Baldwin, who is chief forensics officer for
myNetWatchman.com. "The abuse and security department at an ISP is the
bastard step-child component of a service provider. In some sense,
they're doomed to failure by design."
Talk to anyone who makes a living sniffing out online fraud, and you'll
hear the same story over and over. Researcher uncovers the source of a
massive amount of spam, identifies an IP address that is part of a
botnet or stumbles upon a phishing site that's spoofing a trusted online
brand. Researcher dutifully reports the incident to the internet service
provider whose network is being used, only to find the bad behavior
continues unabated for days, weeks and even months.
A lack of engagement from ISPs is nothing new, but it has continued even
as the malware scourge makes steady gains.
No one really knows exactly how many infected PCs are out there, but
just about everyone agrees the number is high and growing. Accepting
even conservative estimates that 10 percent of machines are part of a
botnet means that tens of millions of systems are actively sending spam,
launching denial-of-service attacks, and spewing all sorts of other
malicious traffic across networks owned by the world's biggest ISPs.
According to figures from researcher Peter Gutmann, the Storm Worm alone
is believed to comprise from 1m to 10m CPUs, creating one of the world's
most powerful computers.
"This may be the first time that a top 10 supercomputer has been
controlled not by a government or mega-corporation but by criminals,"
To be fair, legal liability and economic realities sometimes make it
hard for ISPs to respond to the threat in a meaningful way. But in light
of the surging malware problem, their frequent inaction looks more and
more like complicity.
Although some ISPs are more active than others in policing their
networks, absentee abuse departments and a lack of enforcement seems to
be the rule. The Register spent several weeks calling ISPs large and
small, including Comcast, OpimumOnline, Verizon, Earthlink and Road
Runner. Many didn't bother to return our repeated calls. And all
declined our requests for an interview with a member of their security
team to discuss what steps they take to ensure their networks are not
used as a launch pad for computer attacks.
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