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Risk

10/7/2010
12:22 PM
Jim Rapoza
Jim Rapoza
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Microsoft's PC Quarantine Plan

A plan by Microsoft Security Chief Scott Charney would place infected or unsecured PCs in an Internet isolation ward. And block users from Internet access.

A plan by Microsoft Security Chief Scott Charney would place infected or unsecured PCs in an Internet isolation ward. And block users from Internet access.How might this work? Let's try this potential scenario.

Hello this is your ISP. We regret to inform you that your system has been quarantined and will not be allowed to access the Internet. We have detected that your system may be infected with malware and that you are not running the approved and certified security software to protect your system. Please remove the malware and update your security software (how you can do this without an Internet connection is your problem). Sorry about any important emails, business opportunities, emergency notices and VOIP-based phone calls that you are now missing. Have a nice day.

Could you imagine getting a message like this from your ISP? Well, if Charney's plan goes into effect, your computers could be subject to quarantines and being locked out from Internet access.

At a speech this week, Charney outlined an idea that he called global collective defense.

In this world, computer security problems are treated in the same way that medical professionals treat people with dangerous infectious diseases, namely removing them from contact with other people. Under this idea, if a computer attempts to connect to the Internet and is found to be infected or maybe even just insecure, the ISP should isolate the system until it can be cleaned and locked down.

Now, I have to admit that there's a part of me that actually agrees with a large part of the sentiment here. I once argued that ISPs should have the right to use "good worms" to close the known security holes in user systems. (an idea which I admit is a little crazy)

But in reality there is so much about Charney's concept that is unworkable that I can't in good conscience agree with the plan for PC quarantines.

First off, locking people off the Internet can be a recipe for disaster. What if the person uses VOIP for their home phone and needs to call for assistance? Never mind all of the other scenarios which, while not life threatening, could be fatal to business or employment well-being if a person is locked off of the Internet.

Then there's the whole idea of what warrants a secure system. One could easily imagine a world where certain large commercial security packages are approved while open source and other security solutions are not.

And then there's the whole issue of how non-Windows systems would be treated. I could easily see users who have Linux-based systems running into problems with having systems that their ISP considers to be "certified" secure.

Still, there are some ideas in here that are at least worth discussing. For example, if an ISP can detect that a system has malware and can notify the user, that is a step in the right direction. I could possibly even be in favor of some kind of "safe mode" Internet connection where a person doesn't lose access but is routed into a connection that limits the harm that can be done.

Yes, careless users who can't or won't secure their systems are the main cause of most of our security woes on the Internet. And more definitely needs to be done in areas of education, awareness and notification.

But shutting people off the internet based on some form of automated "safe system" scan is an idea that needs to be quarantined itself.

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