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6/8/2007
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Laws Threaten Security Researchers

New Computer Security Institute report reveals how some computer security laws inadvertently hurt the good guys

What if a Web researcher found a bug on your Website today -- but was too afraid of the law to tell you?

The Computer Security Institute (CSI) recently formed a working group of Web researchers, computer crime law experts, and U.S. Department of Justice agents to explore the effects of laws that might hinder Web 2.0 vulnerability research. And the CSI group's first report -- which it will present on Monday at CSI's NetSec conference in Scottsdale, Ariz. -- has some chilling findings.

In the report, some Web researchers say that even if they find a bug accidentally on a site, they are hesitant to disclose it to the Website's owner for fear of prosecution. "This opinion grew stronger the more they learned during dialogue with working group members from the Department of Justice," the report says.

That revelation is unnerving to Jeremiah Grossman, CTO and founder of WhiteHat Security and a member of the working group. "That means only people that are on the side of the consumer are being silenced for fear of prosecution," and not the bad guys.

Unlike other security researchers -- who are mostly free to ferret out bugs in operating systems, device drivers, or other applications via their own machines -- Web researchers focus their efforts on live Web servers -- walking a tightrope of laws designed to prevent hackers from tampering with those machines.

"[Web] researchers are terrified about what they can and can't do, and whether they'll face jail or fines," says Sara Peters, CSI editor and author of the report. "Having the perspective of legal people and law enforcement has been incredibly valuable. [And] this is more complicated than we thought."

The group's goal is to air the legal, ethical, social, and technological issues, not to take a position per se. The CSI report looks at both sides of the issues.

Lee Tien, a member of the working group and a senior staff attorney for the Electronic Frontier Foundation, says Website vulnerabilities must be exposed so people's data and identities are secured. "The fewer vulnerabilities, the better."

The report discusses several methods of Web research, such as gathering information off-site about a Website or via social engineering; testing for cross-site scripting by sending HTML mail from the site to the researcher's own Webmail account; purposely causing errors on the site; and conducting port scans and vulnerability scans.

Interestingly, DOJ representatives say that using just one of these methods might not be enough for a solid case against a [good or bad] hacker. It would take several of these activities, as well as evidence that the researcher tried to "cover his tracks," they say. And other factors -- such as whether the researcher discloses a vulnerability, writes an exploit, or tries to sell the bug -- may factor in as well, according to the report.

Billy Hoffman, lead researcher for SPI Dynamics's labs and a member of the working group, says the laws cover the "means," not the intent, which makes this even more complicated: "The Computer Fraud and Abuse Act deals with methods," he says.

Hoffman says in his research, he occasionally won't fill out a required Web form field to see how the application reacts. "At one point [in the working group discussions], one of the federal people said as soon as you knowingly start using a site the way it wasn't intended to be used, you've crossed the line into where you're doing something wrong."

That caught Hoffman by surprise. "It struck me that by not filling in required fields, I was knowingly doing something the site told me not to do... Is that illegal? I walked away with the impression it is." But in the end, it depends on whether the site operator wants to come after you or not, he says.

Hoffman suggests Web operators could amend their privacy policies, inviting researchers to notify them of bug discoveries. "I'd like to just try to raise awareness that there are Good Samaritan security researchers who want to try to help people who are developing Web apps. But we are not able to help them like the rest of the industry is able to help security vendors."

Meanwhile, researchers continue to worry about the legal ramifications of their activities. "Good and experienced researchers will seriously curtail their discovery and disclosure practices," WhiteHat's Grossman says. "And newcomers with little experience will get busted because they don't know any better. And bad guys will continue to 'game' the system at the expense of the consumer."

The CSI working group's next step is to explore disclosure policy guidelines and mirrored site, or honeypot, guidelines for Website owners. The group is also developing a matrix of Web vulnerability research methods so lawmakers and law enforcement can better understand the methods researchers use. Its next report will be released in November.

— Kelly Jackson Higgins, Senior Editor, Dark Reading

  • Computer Security Institute (CSI)
  • WhiteHat Security
  • SPI Dynamics
  • Electronic Frontier Foundation Kelly Jackson Higgins is Executive Editor at DarkReading.com. She is an award-winning veteran technology and business journalist with more than two decades of experience in reporting and editing for various publications, including Network Computing, Secure Enterprise ... View Full Bio

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