[ISN] 'T0rn' Arrest Alarms White Hats, Advocates

From: InfoSec News (isnat_private)
Date: Wed Sep 25 2002 - 23:33:56 PDT

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    By Kevin Poulsen, 
    Sept 24, 2002 
    It could almost pass as a routine computer crime case -- a year-long
    probe leads Scotland Yard cybercops to a home in the upscale London
    suburb of Surbiton, where they seize computer equipment and arrest a
    21-year-old man under the UK's 1990 Computer Misuse Act.
    But last Thursday's raid was anything but routine, because the unnamed
    suspect, who has not yet been formally charged, isn't accused of
    cracking computers, launching a denial of service attack or
    distributing a virus. Instead, the joint Scotland Yard/FBI
    investigation is focused on his alleged authorship of the "T0rnkit," a
    collection of custom programs that help an intruder hide their
    presence on a hacked Linux machine. It's apparently the first time the
    UK's national computer crime law has been used to crack down on a
    programmer for writing a tool with malicious applications -- and it's
    a chilling development to some security researchers and electronic
    civil libertarians.
    "I would definitely see it as troublesome," says Lee Tien, senior
    staff attorney at the Electronic Frontier Foundation. "It's something
    we have to look at very closely, because the general idea that you can
    go after someone criminally for simply writing a program raises
    T0rnkit first began showing up on hacked boxes two years ago. Like
    other so-called "rootkits," it includes programs that an intruder can
    drop into place over genuine system commands that render the attacker
    invisible to the computer's administrator. A replacement "ps" command,
    for example, will omit the hacker's network sniffer from a list of
    processes running on the machine, where an unadulterated version of
    the command would finger the intruder.
    The package also includes a backdoor function that allows the attacker
    to covertly return to a machine that they've hacked. "The more recent
    ones have had loadable kernel modules, distributed denial of service
    tools, and stuff like that," says Dave Dittrich, senior security
    engineer at the University of Washington. "Most of the versions are
    circulated in the underground, and they're tightly held."
    In 2001, Chinese virus writers incorporated a modified T0rnkit into
    the nasty "Lion" worm. But the kit itself is not a virus; it can't
    spread on its own accord. And the man arrested last week -- now free
    pending an October 19th court appearance -- is not accused of breaking
    into any computers, or of falling in with Chinese cybergangs. "The
    writing and distribution of the tool is the offense," a Scotland Yard
    spokesman confirmed in a telephone interview Monday.
    And that worries some computer security researchers, who find it all
    to easy to visualize themselves in the position of the anonymous UK
    suspect. So-called "white hat" hackers often create programs with
    potentially malicious applications as an exercise, or to advance the
    published research base -- active intruders tend to keep their work
    "I've written tools myself that have only marginal social value, so it
    actually concerns me quite a bit," says Mark Loveless, a senior
    security analyst with Bindview Corporation. "I'm worried that
    something like that could happen to someone just because they have a
    high profile."
    "Pretty Frightening"
    Researchers are even publicly working on a rootkit for Windows NT
    machines, a project that's headed -- not by anonymous denizens of the
    cyber underground -- but by Greg Hoglund, co-founder and CTO of
    security software company Cenzic, Inc. Aside from research projects,
    many security professionals use hacker tools to perform legitimate
    "penetration tests" against clients. And some of the most common
    security tools like nmap or TCPdump can be used for good or ill.
    "If they're arresting guys just for writing tools, that's pretty
    frightening," says Steve Manzuik, co-moderator of the VulnWatch
    security mailing list. "I guess anyone who's written a security type
    tool should be concerned if this is going to become the next trend."
    It's not a trend yet, but outlawing hacker tools has never been far
    from law enforcement thoughts. Last year 33 countries, including the
    UK and the U.S., signed the Council of Europe's international
    cybercrime treaty, which recommends prohibiting the creation or
    distribution of a hacking tool with the intent that it be used to
    commit a crime, though a last minute change to the treaty allows
    signatory countries to opt out of the provision.
    So far, laws explicitly outlawing hacker tools are hard to find. The
    UK's Computer Misuse Act applies to someone who "causes a computer to
    perform any function with intent to secure access to any program or
    data held in any computer," knowing that he or she is acting without
    authorization. The hacker doesn't have to direct the attack against
    any particular computer to be culpable under the law, which carries up
    to two years in prison for a first time offense -- seven, if damage
    But the legalese, not dissimilar to U.S. computer crime laws, still
    allows prosecutors some wiggle room. "You might not have a direct
    offense in the computer crime law, but if there's an aiding and
    abetting or solicitation -- those inchoate offenses -- you don't
    necessarily have to have it in the law," says Tien.
    Jennifer Granick, director of Stanford Law School's Center for
    Internet and Society, says the result could be a kind of
    Sklyarov-in-reverse. Following the arrest of a Russian programmer at a
    Las Vegas conference last year, some cryptographic researchers
    professed reluctance to make presentations in the U.S. for fear of
    running afoul of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, which prohibits
    distributing or using tools that circumvent copy protection schemes.  
    Depending on what happens in the T0rn case -- which is still in the
    earliest stage -- U.S. security researchers may develop a reciprocal
    aversion to the U.K.
    "If this is really against their law, then you have jurisdictional
    problems," says Granick. "Anywhere a tool is written, if it becomes
    available in the UK, that becomes a crime... All sorts of researchers
    would have to hesitate before visiting the UK."
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