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Companies Should Think About Hacking Back Legally, Attorney Says

Fighting back against cybercriminals can be risky, but there are legal ways to do it, says Hacker Halted speaker

MIAMI -- Hacker Halted 2012 -- If you're so frustrated with hackers that you're thinking about hitting them back, then be careful -- but it can be done.

That was the message delivered Tuesday by David Willson, an attorney from Titan Info Security Group, here at the Hacker Halted conference.

While many companies have the technical tools and knowledge they need to inflict damage on their online opponents, most of them do not pursue the idea because of concerns that the law will regard them as hackers themselves, Willson says.

"The bad news is that [corporations'] security sucks," he says. "The good news is that the bad guys' security sucks, too. There are tools, techniques, and intelligence that you can use to anticipate attacks as well as effectively stop them -- and potentially identify attackers once discovered in your network."

For example, a corporation could place code on a bot that has infected its network, Willson says. Eventually, that code might be transferred back to the attacker's command-and-control server, and could be programmed to block the attacker's communications path.

The trick, Willson says, is how to hack back legally. U.S. firms are governed by the federal Computer Fraud and Abuse Act, which essentially states that any unauthorized access of another organization's computers could be considered a crime. Some states have computer trespass laws, and other countries have laws that might get a company into legal trouble for cracking others' computers if those others are cybercriminals, he notes.

In the above example, where code is attached to a bot, an automated tool might be seen by the courts as being similar to cookies or adware, which are not illegal, Willson says.

Companies could also use honeypots, which allow users to legally collect intelligence about their attackers, or beacons, which legally illuminate an attacker's trail, Willson says.

Hacking back should never be a company's first response, but in the case of a persistent attacker, it might be the only answer. "You might be spending $50,000 to $100,000 a week to battle a persistent threat" he says. "You've tried all of the traditional approaches. Calling law enforcement doesn't help -- they are simply overwhelmed with other cases. What do you do?"

The key is to stay within criminal law while taking your chances with civil law, Willson says. "Obviously, you don't want law enforcement turning around and coming after you," he says. "But if a hacker wants to sue you for unauthorized access, that might be a chance you're willing to take."

Have a comment on this story? Please click "Add a Comment" below. If you'd like to contact Dark Reading's editors directly, send us a message. Tim Wilson is Editor in Chief and co-founder of Dark Reading.com, UBM Tech's online community for information security professionals. He is responsible for managing the site, assigning and editing content, and writing breaking news stories. Wilson has been recognized as one ... View Full Bio

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