Should Unsafe Users Be Quarantined?

Category: Security

It's illegal to drive an unsafe motor vehicle on public highways. The reason is obvious: a broken-down car poses a danger not only to its driver (and passengers) but also to everyone else it passes on the road. Why shouldn't the same rationale apply to unsafe computers (and their users) on the information highway?

Quarantine Unsafe Users?

Spam, viruses, spyware, and other malware are rampant on the Internet. There are servers dedicated to spewing this trash all over the world. Governments and ISPs are constantly pursuing and shutting down gangs of cybercriminals who operate them. But for every online crook, there are thousands of unwitting accomplices.

Millions of computers online are infected with self-replicating viruses. The malware attaches copies of itself to all emails sent out from an infected machine. Botnets - networks of infected computers controlled surreptitiously by a criminal enterprise - launch spam, denial-of-service attacks, and more havoc without the computer owners' knowledge.

But shouldn't you know that your computer is infected and poses a hazard to everyone else on the Internet? Don't you have a responsibility to keep your computer reasonably secure from infection? Should your Internet access be cut off if you are found to be communicating through an unsafe computer? Some people say "yes."
Internet Quarantine

In October, 2010, Microsoft corporate VP Scott Charney wrote, "Just as when an individual who is not vaccinated puts others' health at risk, computers that are not protected or have been compromised with a bot put others at risk and pose a greater threat to society." Microsoft called for the quarantine of infected computers until they were cleared and issued a "certificate of health."

Australia's Internet Industry Association drafted a code of conduct for ISPs in 2009. Among other things, it included a provision urging ISPs to cut off the Internet access of customers whose computers were found to be infected with malware or otherwise posing a threat to other Internet users.

How Would Quarantining Work?

Before "quarantining" an infected computer, the ISP would have to notify the account owner that a problem existed, and provide information that would help the customer fix the problem. This is just like a warning from a police officer that your taillight is out and you need to get it fixed.

Note that "quarantine" is different from being cut off from the Internet entirely. An ISP could limit an infected customer's Internet access to a server that provides information and tools that would help cure the infection.

There are qualms about cutting off Internet access to stop the flood of malware. Consider a business with hundreds of computers networked behind a router. If one computer is infected, should the entire network be kicked offline? ISPs can generally trace malware traffic to a router, but don't have the ability to investigate every single computer that the router serves.

Then there is reluctance to "blame the victim" whose computer has been taken over by a botnet or infected by a virus. But victims of biological infectious diseases are routinely quarantined until they are cured, in the interest of public health.

The U.S. government is considering Microsoft's proposal and the Australian model, along with others. First, owners of infected computers would be given a chance to cure their infections. Then, an ISP would be authorized - perhaps required - to quarantine the user's computer(s).

As I said earlier, in most cases the user hasn't a clue that their computer is spewing malware or being used in a denial of service attack. But that doesn't make them any less dangerous. An ISP can certainly detect this in a user's outbound traffic stream. So I don't think it's unreasonable for them to put up a big STOP sign on someone's screen if they know it's happening. In the vast majority of cases, the user could download a free malware scanner, zap the bad stuff, and be back online in 15 minutes.

It would deal a serious blow to the criminal elements on the Internet, and it could dramatically reduce the amount of spam, which currently accounts for 90% of ALL email traffic. Yes, there might be some collateral damage. But I think it's an idea whose time has come.

What do YOU think about the idea of Internet quarantining? Post your comment or question below...

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Most recent comments on "Should Unsafe Users Be Quarantined?"

(See all 30 comments for this article.)

Posted by:

Digital Artist
26 May 2011

It's a political issue. A good idea on the face of it, but watch out for under cover censorship. Just take a look at two cable TV networks, one "progressive" and the other "conservative". It is not unreasonable that these two media giants have connections in media other than cable television. So, the ISP connected with, say the "conservative" TV guys sees a lot of blogging about say, Michele Bachmann and WHAMO! And just like an unscrupulous cop could plant evidence on a suspect, an ISP would have an easy job of putting the malware on an "enemy" computer. Again, it is a good idea, but requires more oversight than just the say-so of an ISP.

Posted by:

Tom S.
26 May 2011

The problem is that the vast majority of pc users haven't the foggiest idea what they're doing. All they know is to turn on the computer, log on to a web site for their e-mail and turn the pc off. Firewall? Whats that? Anti-virus. Ditto! And so we put them into the 'DUH' category of users!!

Posted by:

26 May 2011

I agree that ISP`s should do everything they can do to warn their customers that they have infected computers.
IMHO its children and teenagers mostly that download everything and anything without taking security precautions.They seem to be either too trusting or simply don`t care.

Posted by:

26 May 2011

I agree that quarantine is a viable option at the ISP level only. We don't need more government intrusion into our lives or federal enforcement agencies created, thank you very much.

Posted by:

Joe M
26 May 2011

What a silly proposal. So granny, who is computer illiterate and just wants to be able to video-chat with her grandchildren will be kicked off the internet by "someone" because her computer gets infected?

How about companies that produce software that has holes in it be "quarantined" for selling defective software in the first place? I pay for my defective copy of Windows and then pay for anti-virus/anti-malware software to keep me protected from exploits due to that defective software?

ISP's aren't going to enforce these silly rules because they don't want to lose their revenue streams to competitors. Most people have access to at least 5 methods of accessing the internet - DSL, Cable, Satellite, Dial-up and Cellular Broadband. Kick Granny off one and she will switch to another and then Comcast is out a customer.

How quickly would people ditch Windows for Linux or Mac?

And the author and some posters are actually comparing surfing with driving a car or the severity of becoming infected with a contagious disease, please, step away from the keyboard. What a completely lame comparison.

No product is 100% effective in detection or cleaning of malware anyway. So then what? Your computer is put offline until you get clean and tough luck that your report for school or your boss is due tomorrow?

Forget about businesses with hundreds of computers behind routers. what about households with 2, 3 or 5+ computers sharing a single connection?

How ironic that posters agree with this idea. If they all kept their machines patched and adequate antivirus, it shouldn't be an issue for them.

Posted by:

26 May 2011

A lot of unanswered questions here. What about the companies that sell web browsers with security holes big enough to sail a cruise liner through? What responsibility should ISPs have for stopping spam and other malicious crap from getting a free ride? What anti virus program will catch all the bad stuff?

I have always had an anti virus program on my computers that is updated daily and sometimes oftener. I've still been bitten several times.

I don't subscribe to the "...there ought to be a law ..." mantra. There is no such a thing as 100% security, and no amount of laws or regulations will change that. The proposal above sounds good, perhaps, but it would ultimately drive everyone but geeks off the internet. It's an idea that needs a lot of re-thinking.

Posted by:

David Hickman
26 May 2011

I completely agree. It's as simple as any of the other rules we have to help a civilised society operate. The sooner the better.

How do we, as innocent users, move this along?

Posted by:

27 May 2011

'Responsibility' is the key word. We pay our ISP for access to the internet and thus it is THEIR responsibility that we should enjoy a service that is fit for purpose. So, away with all the media-style headlining about Government intervention - the ISPs themselves should be compelled to police their own realms. They should take down websites proven to carry malware, and they should block known spammers' email addresses. It is the ISPs' own lax approach to privacy and security that is facilitating the rise in malware and spamming. Too easy just to blame the end users who would not need antispyware and antivirus programs, firewalls and the like if the ISPs were more dutiful and diligent in managing their businesses.

Posted by:

27 May 2011

How about finding the REAL crooks, perpetrators, guilty parties, Virus Creators, Spam Creators, MalWare Writers, and so on??

Rather than try police 2 billion computers, and catch the 1.999 billion innocent people... they could go after the bad guys. Instead of shooting everyone in Pakistan, they got bin Laden.

Then again, if ISP's had better filters..... IFFF Gmail, Hotmail, and so on had better filters. IFFF Apple, IBM, RedHat, and Microsoft wrote better O/S's....

Most people who get caught up in a botnet or whatever have no idea what, how, or why. So perhaps, a little education, and a little help could help solve the problem. Sadly, for many that help would have to be made very cheap to be affordable....

I try provide such help to a number of local seniors, with the little bit I know (in the land of the blind...) but it is an uphill battle. I also know a local computer store that does this. The guy "knows" his clients. He'll fix $600+ problems for

At least AVG, AVAST, SpyBot S&D, and Ad-Aware try and help out.

Posted by:

27 May 2011

Yes. Absolutely. Definitely. No Doubt Whatsoever. And for those who instigate this crap, string 'em up by the nuttin'....just DO IT.

Posted by:

Richard Kavanagh
27 May 2011

Bad idea. Enforcement requires some sort of authority. That authority will soon censor other things.

Posted by:

27 May 2011

Joe M says it all and he is right.

Posted by:

L. Sheldon
27 May 2011

NO NO NO NO NO!!!!!!

Posted by:

27 May 2011

I just think it is not a good idea. Warn yes, but cut them off? I know there are weird things that go around all the time, like the ones that regularly attack FB. So I am on FB and suddenly some new attack flies through hopping from machine to machine saying click here to all my friends, and your going to turn me off, even though it is not my fault? That just does not sit well with me....

Posted by:

27 May 2011

There are some really good comments here. I too agree that stopping net access for an infected computer will cause a lot of trouble. How about an ISP warning a customer that it believes to be infected, then helping them clear the infection?

Posted by:

27 May 2011

Wow, it's unconstitutional to turn off a service that someone has paid for. Are we also going to blame the people who get telemarketing phone calls at dinner time? Cut off their phone service to cut down on telemarketing? That's what it amounts to.

I like the idea of the ISPs informing people that their computer has been compromised, but nothing else.
And isn't that what Antivirus programs are supposed to do, warn and quarantine/delete the intruding invader?
If you're going to blame someone, blame the virus/malware programmers, not the computer user.

I am adamantly against blocking Internet service for any reason.

Posted by:

28 May 2011

While this idea may sound good just think of what is the worst thing that might happen with this kind of control and likely that is what it evolve to eventually.

I would go along with the ISP should notify and help people who have such problems. But notify and help is as far as it should go...

Posted by:

29 May 2011

I have Verizon, with a deluxe version of MSN. This includes free MacAfee. Every ISP should be required to furnish protection as part of their service. I totally agree with the fellow who says, "Responsibility is the key word".

Posted by:

30 May 2011

Those people who spawn Malware and viral Spam should be treated as terrorists because of the damage they cause. The huge amount of financial damage to companies, and the vast amount of wasted bandwidth due to those idiots is not just annoying but incredibly costly. Sources should be traced and coders punished to the fullest extent of the law. Perhaps if they had to pay for the damage and suffer jail time, the issue would diminish dramatically.

Posted by:

06 Jun 2011

I agree, unless you have an unscrupulous ISP like I do. My local telco, Ponderosa Phone Company, provides the only broadband connection in my area. Apparently, they detected a batch of emails originating from my computer so they blocked my email account without telling me. It took me hours of debugging to find the problem.

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