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Brits to Lay Down the Law on Hackers?

Sweeping computer security legislation proposed in the UK Parliament could outlaw everyday IT practices

If proposed legislation currently in the U.K. Parliament becomes law, some security professionals and researchers could find themselves behind bars -- rather than propping them up -- this time next year.

In sweeping revisions to the U.K.'s Computer Misuse Act of 1990, a bill proposed earlier this month in Parliament would outlaw any act of computer "misuse," including gaining unauthorized access, attempting to impair computer operation, and supplying information or tools that could help hackers.

The bill, which already has passed the House of Commons and is under discussion in the House of Lords, is designed to crack down on computer crime by imposing fines and jail sentences of up to one year for offenses against private and corporate computers, proponents say. But detractors note that the bill's broad language could be interpreted incorrectly -- and could effectively put innocent IT staffers and end users under the long arm of the law.

"A person is guilty of an offence if (a) he does any unauthorised act in relation to a computer; and (b) at the time when he does the act he has the requisite intent and the requisite knowledge," the bill states, "...the intent need not be directed at any particular computer, any particular program or data, or a program or data of any particular kind."

The bill goes on to outlaw activities that could aid attackers. "A person is guilty of an offence if he makes, adapts, supplies or offers to supply any article (a) intending it to be used... to commit an offence [or] (b) believing that it is likely to be so used."

Some British legal experts suggested that the language of the proposed bill could make criminals of users or vendors who distribute information about unpatched security vulnerabilities or who distribute software or other tools used by hackers, such as Perl scripts. But proponents argue that the broad language is necessary to prevent criminals from escaping through legal loopholes that often develop as criminal technology evolves.

Legislators in the United States are wrestling with similar issues as they attempt to update their computer privacy legislation. Several bills have been introduced in the U.S. Congress, but experts expect it will be some time before anything meaningful is accomplished there. (See House Has New Crime Bill.)

— Tim Wilson, Site Editor, Dark Reading

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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