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Hacking: A Few Cautionary Tales

This week's story about a white-hat hacker who broke into the University of Southern California's computer system to warn of its vulnerabilities is an interesting cautionary tale for all the parties involved.
This week's story about a white-hat hacker who broke into the University of Southern California's computer system to warn of its vulnerabilities is an interesting cautionary tale for all the parties involved.The hacker, Eric McCarty, had good intentions, but went about proving his concerns the wrong way. Sorry, but however good his motivations were, he had no right to break into the university's computer system and expose the personal data there to potential abuse or error.

The university, which should want to know about vulnerabilities in its computer systems and indeed should be actively testing its own software to find any that exists, seems not to appreciate the potential embarrassment and loss McCarty probably saved it from. At the rate universities today are finding themselves embroiled in one brainless security breach after another, let's hope USC uses the McCarty test as motivation for redoubling its own efforts to ferret out any weaknesses in its system and get them fixed. In fact, more companies should be actively trying to break their own systems. Is it really wise to wait until some bad guy does?

And it's become clear that the security and white-hat community needs to update or expand an online document known as RFPolicy, which unofficially lays out the proper process for researchers to communicate to software developers and vendors any bugs they find. This policy doesn't address the issue of Web-based applications that exist on other people's servers. Hopefully that fact, along with the growing importance and reach of Web-based applications, will spur discussion, debate, and some suggestions for how to move forward in that environment with well-meaning security research.

Yet another cautionary tale--this time for the courts--is provided by two more stories about hackers this week. First, a British court has agreed that Englishman Gary McKinnon, who's accused of hacking into American military computers, should be tried in the U.S.

Computer crime is an obvious global activity and threat, and cooperation on an international level is going to be needed to combat this growth industry and punish the perpetrators. We've already seen the payoff in the fight against child porn when governments work together.

Second, according to a report from the U.K.-based security firm Sophos, the Netsky and Sasser worm clans are still plaguing PCs two years after their creation. In fact, the Netsky worm is still the No. 1 reported virus in the world, according to Sophos. Despite two years of grief, loss, and havoc, Sven Jaschan, the 18-year-old creator of this electronic menace, got off lightly with a suspended sentence and 30 measly hours of community service.

That's outrageous. We need to really start thinking though the ramifications of some of these viruses and other acts of criminal code production and do a better job of matching the punishment to the crime.

By all means, sentence Eric McCarty to some community service--he meant no harm, and I'm sure there are some nonprofits that could benefit from, and be grateful for, his examination of their computer systems. But no way should Jaschan be out walking around in the free air.

Which is why the sentencing this week of Jeanson James Ancheta to almost a four-year sentence--"the longest-known sentence for a defendant who spread computer viruses"--is a welcome step in the right direction. The botnet creator was also ordered to pay a total of $75,000 and give up some of his purchases obtained via his criminal enterprise. After his jail term, Ancheta will serve three years of supervised release, during which time (eyes rolling here) his access to computers and the Internet will be limited, according to the judge.

As hackers, phishers, and botnet creators move away from juvenile stunts and malicious behavior and into serious money-making operations, the judicial system needs to step up its sentencing from computer confiscation, community service, suspended sentences, and silly orders to stay away from the Internet or computers. If young hackers want to play in the big leagues, they should be prepared to pay the price if they get caught. The sentencing of Ancheta and the extradition of McKinnon are a start.

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