To stop hacker attacks, don't rely on ISPs

Your Internet service provider isn't to blame if your company is hit with a distributed denial-of-service attack. That was the verdict of IT security professionals in a mock trial staged by Gartner at its IT Security Summit last month, in which ISPs were charged with not doing enough to keep subscribers' computers from being compromised and used as tools in attacks on corporate networks.

The plaintiffs, two fictional companies, argued that ISPs could do more to prevent so-called zombie machines from being used in attacks if they scan subscribers' computers, monitor traffic and shut down suspicious network uses. Real-life cybersecurity lawyer Ben Wright compared the ISPs' lack of enforcement to the owner of a dangerous piece of property (such as a shooting range) who doesn't buy a fence to keep others out.

But Stewart Baker, a partner with Steptoe & Johnson, who defended the fictional ISPs, argued that it would be a violation of privacy for ISPs to check subscribers' computers. Baker suggested that it's a computer owner's responsibility to protect against malicious viruses and worms.

The audience of hundreds of IT security professionals served as the jury, using electronic voting boxes to record their opinions. Only 30 percent backed the fictional plaintiffs. Fifty-four percent supported the ISP position, and 16 percent chose neither.

In a distributed denial-of-service attack, hackers often take over thousands of computers by sending out a worm that collects them, through an Internet relay chat server, into a network called a botnet. The bad guys then use these machines to mass attack and crash a Web server.

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