ISPs should block ports to reduce exploits

Internet service providers should take security matters into their own hands by blocking access to communications ports on their...

Internet service providers should take security matters into their own hands by blocking access to communications ports on their customers' computers which are commonly exploited by internet worms and other malicious programs, according to a Sans Institute report.

Leaving the ports open offers little to customers, while needlessly exposing them to infection and making it more likely that ISPs will be overwhelmed by future virus outbreaks.

The report was written by Johannes Ullrich, chief technology officer of the Sans internet storm centre, which uses a worldwide network of sensors to track virus outbreaks and other events on the internet.

The report identifies four communications ports that are commonly left open on Microsoft Windows machines so that users on an office or home network can share files between two Windows systems.

However, those ports were never intended to be used to access files over an insecure public network such as the internet, Ullrich said. At least one of the ports, 135, was used by the recent W32.Blaster worm to locate and infect vulnerable Windows machines on the internet.

But the four ports were known as handy access points for loosely secured Windows machines long before Blaster appeared in early August.

"These machines are taken out on a regular basis and used in large scale distributed denial of service attacks," he said. By blocking the ports centrally, ISPs would close an open doorway for attackers without requiring any action by their customers.

Many ISPs already block some or all of the ports named, while others offer customers free personal firewall software to install on their home computers. However, home internet users often lack the technical knowledge necessary to install and configure a firewall or even install a software patch.

Closing the ports would not protect users from all internet threats. However, it is a simple step that would remove a common and commonly exploited security hole, Ullrich said.

"The idea is to get rid of the bulk of the problem, then [ISPs] can deal with the remainder of problems on a case by case basis," he said.

Despite their popularity among virus writers and hackers, the Windows ports are not required to browse the web or perform other common internet activities, meaning that the change would be unnotiicable to most ISP customers, Ullrich said.

Customers who wanted to share files between home or office computers could still do so safely, as long as they were not doing so over the public internet and their network was protected by a firewall.

While feasible for ISPs that serve consumers and for universities, the solution is not right for every ISP, Ullrich acknowledged. ISPs that serve corporate customers or larger, internet backbone providers could disrupt customers' networks using a blanket approach such as the one advocated in the report.

"This [plan] is for the home user who knows how to turn on his computer and use a web browser, but not much else," Ullrich said.

"I think it's a really good idea," said Richard Smith, an independent security expert. Plugging the holes centrally would keep many internet users from unwittingly opening their computers, and their private lives, to the internet.

"Most users don't want to share their hard drive with the whole internet and they don't even know they're doing it," he said.

ISPs continue to adhere to an "old school" belief that "you've gotta keep everything [on the internet] open", he added.

Practically, however, there are few reasons to block the ports, Smith admitted. While some ISPs are dragging their feet, ISP America Online is using its firewall feature as a major marketing draw for consumers.

Paul Roberts writes for IDG News Service

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