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Is XTRA Protecting Its Hackers? 24 January 2002 Edition
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First up let me say that until my last access provider decided to get out of the dial-up business I was spoilt. I could stay online as long as I liked, seldom ever being disconnected unexpectedly and always having access to technically competent people who were extremely proactive about sorting any problems that might occur.

The switch to XTRA was therefor something of a shock.

First-up I found that the modem I had been using with perfect reliability didn't seem to like whatever was on the other end of the 087303030 number. It would connect -- but within a few minutes it would simply stop talking and I'd have to hang up and redial -- then I'd get a few more minutes of operation before having to hang up again.

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So I hauled out my US Robotics V-everything box and things got better -- although I still have to hang up and redial occasionally when even it stops talking to XTRA's gear.

And then there was that help desk.

Readers Say
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From Yesterday...
  • Voyager v Xtra... - Ian
  • Xtra's excuse sequence... - Peter
  • internet service providers... - Alan
  • A comment from the inside... - Michael
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    Don't get me wrong -- I've got no gripes with the actual helpdesk staff -- they are but slaves to the system. Being a helpdesk operator has to be one of the most thankless tasks on the face of the planet.

    Imagine spending all day talking to people who are bitching and moaning because their computer or internet connection has gone wrong. There's no way you could pay me enough to endure endless hours of walking idiots through checklists in a polite and courteous way.

    However, XTRA's helpdesk organisation ought to (and apparently is) being reviewed slightly so as to better handle incidents such as the one I reported yesterday.

    This can only be a good thing. After all, one can only wonder at how many people might have already gone out and bought a "better" modem to try and fix problems falsely attributed to that universal catch-all: "line noise"?

    So what was the cause of yesterday's problems?

    Although details remain sketchy, it appears that a small block of IP addresses belonging to XTRA were blocked from accessing the CNet/ZDNet servers. This explains why the problem only affected some users and not others.

    One has to ask why on earth CNet/ZDNet would do such a thing.

    Could it have been that some XTRA-based script-kiddy was trying to nuke the CNet/ZDNet servers and blocking that range of IP numbers was the easiest way to eliminate the problem?

    Sounds pretty feasible to me -- after all, I've completely given up reporting script-kiddy activity since XTRA stopped accepting emailed security and spam reports -- forcing people instead to jump through the hoops on this form.

    I'd say that XTRA is a script-kiddy's paradise right now, since most people like myself who can tell the difference between real malevolent activity and spurious noise, simply regard XTRA's reporting system as a cumbersome black hole that is not worth bothering with.

    How much do XTRA care about soliciting genuine security reports?

    Well, despite their claims to the contrary, I'd have to say that they are not in the least bit interested in such things -- in fact they're actively working to discourage people from bothering them with such trivia.

    Want proof?

    Well, months after I wrote this column, they still haven't updated the form (screenshot as of this morning) to indicate that the XTRA login name and password AREN'T mandatory at all. One can't help but come to the conclusion that, since this is a 5-minute fixup, they've chosen to leave this form "as-is" so as to save the cost of actually receiving reports from other sites and network operators.

    Could it be that CNet/ZDNet emailed a report to abuse@xtra.co.nz and were directed to that page -- only to be told that they couldn't submit a complaint unless they were an XTRA subscriber? Is it any wonder that they may have decided that blocking part of the XTRA network might be the only available solution to stop attacks on their servers?

    In light of such speculation, I'd say that script kiddies may have found XTRA to be a warm, welcoming (so long as you pay your $27 a month) place from which to molest other parts of the Net.

    And the result -- other, legitimate users (who also pay their $27 a month) might well end up being blocked from accessing their favourite websites.

    Come on XTRA -- get your act together!

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