Broadband Caps Could Mean Consumers Pay for Bot-Net Traffic

The broadband caps proposed by Comcast and other home ISPs would mean that consumers would now be paying for excessive traffic from their networks, even when malware or bot-nets caused the traffic. Much media attention has been paid to the effect of traffic from spam and video ads used in normal web pages, but little has been said about the effect on consumers that malware infection could now have.

Imagine a simple malware infection that sends email. That infected machine could send millions of emails a month, easily breaching the modest bandwidth limits that some are proposing. How will the average consumer respond when they get warnings and then large bills from their network ISP for traffic that they did not cause? Imagine the help desk calls, irate customers and the increased costs of handling such incidents. How will the average help desk technician handle claims that infected systems caused the excess traffic?How will courts handle the cases when the consumer refuses to pay these charges and the ISP pursues their clients for the money?

Attackers are the real winners here, at least those interested in causing chaos. Effective attacks to cause financial damages and ISP cutoff against a known/focused target become all that much easier to perform. If you hate your neighbor and her barking dog, then you get her machine infected with malware and cause her to get a huge bill from her cable company. Do this enough and you can damage her credit, get her cut off from the Internet and maybe even interfere with her ability to earn a living (especially if she is a web worker). Heck, malware isn’t the only way – break into her wireless network or find it open to start with – and you have the perfect entry point for making her “iLife” a true nightmare.

Sure, some folks say these risks already exist without the added pressures of ISP bandwidth caps. They are right, they do. Some folks also say that these threats may make average consumers pay more attention to security. I think they are wrong, this will be just another item on a long list of ignored and forgotten “bad things” that happen to “other people”. However, I do think that these attacks should be a serious concern for the ISPs implementing the caps. The ISPs seem to be sharing a primary of claim that they are adding these caps due to bandwidth issues and the costs required to handle the current and future traffic. Yet, I would suggest that bandwidth caps are very likely to raise their support and account management costs exponentially – which could mean that they are shooting themselves in the foot.

Bandwidth caps are a bad idea for a variety of reasons (including stifling innovation), but they play directly into attacker hands and lend attackers a new spin on how to cause damage and chaos. In the last few weeks, much has been made of the recent growth in bot-net infected systems. Experts point to a nearly 400% increase over the summer months alone. Imagine the chaos and issues that could stem from calculated campaigns that wrangle those bot-net infected machines into breaking the boundaries of their ISP. Maybe bot herders would even change from holding end users hostage to targeting ISPs with bandwidth cap breaking storms that would trigger massive client notifications, calls to technical support and account management systems. Maybe attackers could figure out a way to use bot-net infected systems to cause “human customer denial-of-service” attacks against cable companies. I am certainly not rooting for such a thing, but it seems plausible given the current state of infected systems.

I just don’t see a positive for anyone coming from these ideas. I don’t see how they aid the consumer. I see how they could be used to harm both the consumer and the ISP. I see how attackers could leverage the change in multiple ways – given than many are extensions of existing issues. Generally, I just fail to see an upside. I find it hard to believe that consumers will be thrilled about paying for illicit traffic that they will argue they did not create and I can’t see the courts doing much to force them to pay for that traffic. I guess only time will tell – but it seems to me that in this game – everyone loses…

This entry was posted in End-user Focused, General InfoSec by Brent Huston. Bookmark the permalink.

About Brent Huston

I am the CEO of MicroSolved, Inc. and a security evangelist. I have spent the last 20+ years working to make the Internet safer for everyone on a global scale. I believe the Internet has the capability to contribute to the next great leap for mankind, and I want to help make that happen!

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