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Should telecoms patrol Internet?
Category: Internet Security
Forget that warm and fuzzy slogan about reaching out and touching someone. The biggest U.S. telephone company is increasingly pitching its ability to keep the bad guys away.
Every day, all over the Internet, computers are bombarded with spam and malware, forcing corporate information technology staffs into constant battle, and often overwhelming home users.
But help is emerging from an unlikely source. Telecommunication carriers, who for years have passively transported voice and data communications, are offering to patrol their giant networks - for a price.
In the United States, much of the digital debris passes over AT&T's massive Internet backbone - and that's where it should be stopped, said Ed Amoroso, AT&T's chief security officer. Verizon, AT&T's biggest competitor, has begun offering similar security services.
Experts say adding security to other telecom services makes good engineering sense, but it also raises concerns that the companies might misuse their power to redirect or filter traffic in ways that haven't been authorized by their customers.
AT&T and other carriers are currently seeking immunity from civil lawsuits for their cooperation with a massive government surveillance program following the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.
"This is a very serious discussion with no easy answers," said Dean Turner, director of the global intelligence network at Symantec, one of the largest makers of computer-security software.
Unlike public roads and highways, which are also used by criminals for dastardly purposes, the network pipes that make up the Internet are private and can be easily surveilled.
Carriers such as AT&T have an advantage over both cybercriminals and the security professionals who fight them. Thanks to ever-more-sophisticated equipment, they can watch everything that happens on their networks and quickly spot suspicious behavior.
They can examine e-mail, provided it is not encrypted, and filter out spam. They can identify viruses, worms and targeted robotic attacks long before they hit corporate computer networks.
"The real solution here is that service providers need to be cleaning the pipes," Amoroso said. "Taking on a greater role in security is a natural evolution for telecommunications carriers."
On an average business day, AT&T's network carries about 14.5 petabytes of traffic. But a lot of that is junk. AT&T estimates about 80 percent of the e-mail it delivers is spam.
Traditionally, AT&T and other carriers have distanced themselves from the data on their networks. As so-called "common carriers," they avoided liability. They didn't mess with the material they transported or bear any responsibility for it.
But as years passed and the Internet became more polluted with worms and viruses, the hands-off stance made less sense. During 2007, security professionals at Symantec saw malicious code on the Internet more than quintuple to 1.1 million instances.
Symantec estimates that 5 million computers worldwide are infected with bots - software that is commonly used to launch massive digital strikes, or denial-of-service attacks, on companies and government agencies connected to the Internet.
"The carriers can filter the bits before they get to you," said John Pescatore, vice president of research firm Gartner. "That has proven very effective, especially for preventing denial-of-service attacks."
AT&T introduced its DDos Defense service in 2005, and Amoroso said he needs an explicit agreement with a customer to redirect its Internet traffic. The service has been growing at rates of more than 50 percent a year.
Though the security services represent a tiny fraction of AT&T's $121 billion in annual revenue - the company won't say how much - Amoroso is convinced that delivering clean data is the future.
"It saves the customer money," he said, because companies need fewer IT employees and less equipment. Amoroso also contended that AT&T is better equipped to continuously update programs such as firewalls and intrusion detection systems.
Brown and Caldwell, a Walnut Creek environmental engineering firm, became a customer of AT&T's network security service in January. "It's overwhelming how much benefit it provides," said IT manager Dan Mone. "It makes our network much more reliable."
While AT&T currently sells the security service only to businesses, it is looking into a consumer product that could save people the trouble of installing and updating security software on their personal computers.
Experts in Internet law said network-based security services are legal and may be desirable, but the services should be closely monitored.
During the past year, the issue of network management by giant Internet providers made headlines after Comcast admitted delaying some traffic sent using the BitTorrent peer-to-peer protocol. AT&T itself set off a storm of criticism when it said it was considering filtering its network for copyrighted content.
The security services are "a form of centralized control that can be misused," said Tim Wu, a professor at Columbia Law School. "But the general consensus is that when these are done in good faith for the purpose of preventing attacks on the network, that's great."
"Protecting yourself from unwanted communication is not illegal," said Susan Crawford, a visiting professor at Yale Law School. "The problem is if AT&T is using these security services as an occasion to intercept the content of domestic Internet communications for some other purpose."