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Risk

2/26/2007
01:11 PM
Sharon Gaudin
Sharon Gaudin
Commentary
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Vigilante Hacker -- Hero Or Menace? Your Call…

The jury's out on a controversial hack job. Oh, one man is already going to jail in this tale. The question is whether the hacker who helped put the bad guy away was the hero of the story or just another bad guy. What's your take on this one?

The jury's out on a controversial hack job. Oh, one man is already going to jail in this tale. The question is whether the hacker who helped put the bad guy away was the hero of the story or just another bad guy. What's your take on this one?Last Friday, I wrote about a former California judge being sentenced for possession of child pornography. A 27-month sentence wrapped up the case about six years after a vigilante hacker infiltrated the judge's computer with a Trojan horse designed to weed out pedophiles.

The man going to jail is Former Orange County Superior Court Judge Ronald C. Kline, 65, of Irvine, Calif. He had pleaded guilty to four counts of possession of child pornography, admitting that the images of child porn were on his home computer, two floppy disks, and one portable disk drive.

Federal prosecutors had to traverse a bumpy road with this case, though. It was a question of how the government got the evidence on Kline, and whether it was admissible in court.

Brad Willman, a Canadian known in hacker circles as Citizen Tipster, wrote the Trojan and embedded it in images of child pornography. He then planted the images on newsgroup sites frequented by pedophiles. Once users downloaded the images, their computers would be infected by the Trojan and Willman would have access to their machines so he could root around in them, looking for other child pornography or even molestation evidence, according to Assistant U.S. Attorney Greg Staples.

Willman has not been charged for the computer break-ins, or for writing and distributing the malware.

Do you think he should have been?

According to U.S. laws (I admit I'm not all that familiar with Canadian law), what Willman did could have sunk him in a lot of legal trouble. He wrote and distributed malware. People's computers were infected. And he broke into the infected computers, invading the users' privacy.

The fact that law enforcement got the goods on Kline because of an illegal search and seizure tripped up the prosecution. One judge threw the case out, saying Willman (who actually calls himself a "hacktivist") was working as an agent of the government so the government could not benefit from his break-in. The prosecutors convinced an appeals court that the vigilante hacker was working on his own so the trial was back on. Then Kline gave up the ghost and pled guilty.

The government wouldn't have had a case without Willman and his Trojan. Rarely do we hear about a Trojan out there on the side of the angels, but because of the hacker and his Trojan, this one man will behind bars and not downloading anything.

Still, what Willman did was illegal. Government types and even one forensics investigator say if would-be do-gooder hackers begin taking up their own causes, we're going to be dealing with a heck of a mess. It's hard for forensic detectives to prove that someone, for example, downloaded child porn when there's a Trojan on the machine, opening back doors and muckin' up the works. And if hackers start attacking systems in the name of one cause or another, that is just going to litter cyberspace with more malware than we've already got now.

But I struggle to say what Willman did was wrong. On the other hand, I can see the mess that we will face if others follow in his footsteps.

So what do all of you think? Hactivists? Vigilante hackers? Are they heroes or a menace?

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