Risk
1/5/2011
10:52 AM
George V. Hulme
George V. Hulme
Commentary
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Japan To Ban Virus Creation? Bad Idea

The Japanese paper, the Yomiuri Shimbun, ran a story during the holidays about how the Japan Ministry of Justice wants to criminalize the creation of viruses. If they pursue this course, it's only going to get messy for security professionals there.

The Japanese paper, the Yomiuri Shimbun, ran a story during the holidays about how the Japan Ministry of Justice wants to criminalize the creation of viruses. If they pursue this course, it's only going to get messy for security professionals there.I understand the desire with efforts like this: make the creation of viruses illegal and (theoretically) the number of viruses in circulation, and thereby risk, goes down.

If only it were that simple.

According to the story, Computer virus creation (and possibly even mere possession) is to be banned. Sources told the paper that the Japan Ministry of Justice is clamping down because more government offices and networks are suffering cyber-attacks.

I could understand criminalizing the release of a virus or a worm or a Trojan, but not the creation. First, what exactly is a 'virus'? Do they mean only viruses that spread through user action as well as Trojans, worms, and spyware? I'll bet they mean 'malware' in the broader sense.

First, such a move could hamper research. Legitimate research. For instance, Microsoft was kicking around the idea of using worms to quickly find at-risk unpatched systems and then remedy them. We covered that story in my February 20, 2008 post Microsoft Moves To Squash 'Friendly' Worm. On the face of it I didn't think using worms to disseminate patches or fight other worms was a good idea. I certainly don't now: there are just too many variables that could go wrong given the state of today's technology. However, it's certainly a noteworthy idea that deserves legitimate research.

You think that idea is an outlier? I don't. There are plenty of similarities between security software and malicious software. Remote monitoring and management tools can be used to steal data and snoop, as easily as they can be used to help a user in trouble. Vulnerability scanners can be used to try to find vulnerabilities on systems so that you can then attack those systems, and they can be used to find vulnerable systems for patching. How about password crackers? They're a vital utility among security professionals necessary to audit the strength of passwords in an organization, for cracking forgotten passwords on documents and the systems a company owns, and even law enforcement who need to access data when they have a warrant but not the password.

Dual-use software is abundant in this industry.

But maybe not in Japan, depending on how the law is crafted.

This news story came to my attention via @weldpond, Chris Wysopal, on Twitter. Wysopal is the CTO at web application security firm Veracode, and he was a vulnerability researcher at the hacker think tank the L0pht. He's always been a advocate of the responsible disclosure of security vulnerabilities and security researchers. I was curious to learn more about what he thought on the topic, and if his thoughts were in line with my own. I asked him, in an email, what he thought and here's his reply:

This is an extremely complex issue to get right. The functionality overlap between malware and remote administration and security tools is very big. And if it is truly creation and not possession would customization of a Zeus toolkit become creation and not just possession? Would repacking malware mean you just created a new virus. This should be a concern for all security tool developers, commercial and open source. Many tools, including ones I have been involved with, L0phtCrack and netcat, have been flagged by antivirus products as malware.

That's how laws with good intentions create bad outcomes. Not only would it fail to stop malware creation and dissemination, but it could criminalize legitimate research and legitimate products.

Let's hope this idea goes nowhere, and certainly doesn't spread beyond Japan.

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