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Attacks/Breaches

MIT Presentation on Subway Hack Leaks Out

In ironic twist, court documents that argue for suppression of Defcon presentation help distribute data about the hack

The Massachusetts Bay Transit Authority wanted to stop some students at MIT from revealing the security vulnerabilities they had discovered in the Boston subway system.

Unfortunately, the MBTA did just the reverse: It helped publish the flaws across the Web.

In a turn of events that sounds like a soap opera -- or, more accurately, a situation comedy -- the MBTA sued the students on Friday to prevent them from making a presentation at Defcon in Las Vegas about "how to generate fare cards, reverse engineer magnetic stripes on cards, and hack [radio frequency identification] cards" used in the Boston subway network.

The lawsuit forced the students to cancel their presentation. But in making its plea for the restraining order, the MBTA included details of the hack in publicly available court filings. Those details soon began to be forwarded all over the Internet.

Ironically, the court documents offered more information on the vulnerabilities than the students had planned to disclose in their presentation. The Defcon talk would have excluded some information needed to create an exploit, according to one of the students.

Early reports on the lawsuit indicated that the students had not followed hacker protocol and informed the MBTA about the vulnerability before making the disclosure. But the students say they did tell the MBTA, according to reports.

"We made first contact," said Zack Anderson, 21, a Los Angeles native who majors in electronic engineering and computer science. "We wanted to let them know what we found and we wanted to tell them some ideas we had on how they could fix that system... We felt like the issue was resolved. That was verbally affirmed in a Monday meeting. Then Friday, we find out there’s a federal lawsuit against us."

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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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