UK eyes special license for infosec researchers hampered by export controls

The UK government wants to find out if security researchers have faced an “unnecessary burden” from Europe’s relatively new controls on intrusion software and is considering special licensing arrangements if it finds they are.

In recent weeks Cisco and Google have joined a growing chorus of US security researchers voicing opposition to a plan in the US to regulate the export of so-called “intrusion software” — software that is designed to evade detection or defeat countermeasures. They’ve said it could stifle research into security that will ultimately make end users less safe, despite the law’s good intentions.

The proposal stems from a 2013 update to the dual-use technologies component of the Wassenaar Arrangement, which added intrusion software in response to concerns it could be used to violate human rights. The 41 participating nations, including the US, the EU and Australia, agree to implement the definitions in local legislation.

Europe implemented its legislation in December 2014, which meant that EU-based researchers who planned to participate in hacking contests like HP’s Pwn2Own needed an export license.

Despite a quieter reaction in Europe over its controls, the UK’s Export Control Office (ECO) on Monday published a document to clear up confusion about the rules and provide a number of practical examples to illustrate what’s in scope of the controls on intrusion software.

The ECO also said it would consider “special licensing arrangements” if it found security researchers faced an “unnecessary burden” under the restrictions.

“The ECO would welcome comments on the impact of these controls, especially in relation to security research,” the office said.

The update from the ECO touched on some of the issues raised by Google in its recent submission to the US Commerce Department. The search company said it could hamper its cross-border security efforts, including its various bug bounty programs which rely on researchers based outside the US. It also said it could require tens of thousands of licenses due to it needing to share software bugs across its international operations.

For UK researchers who participate in bug bounties operated outside of the EU, the ECO said it all depends on whether the program’s requires a researcher to just describe a provide a proof of concept; alone neither qualify, but together they might.

“If the terms of payment require a description of how such a proof of concept works then that description could well meet the technology control if the proof of concept met the definition of "intrusion software”,” the ECO notes.

Similarly, it makes a distinction between the type of bug reports researchers submit to vendors: “A bug report that describes a defeat for 'protective countermeasures' and a modification to the standard execution path of a program would be controlled as "technology" if it allowed the execution of external instructions. If instead the only outcome described was to launch a calculator process then this is unlikely to be controlled.”

Additionally, multinationals whose day to day business involves transferring items that qualify as intrusion software tools will require a licence.

ECO noted that the export controls apply to items “like malware command and control servers, the tools to build malware, and software to use or serve exploits, rather than the actual malware binaries or exploits”. In other words, the intrusion software itself is not controlled.

It also clarified that intrusion software means it has to be “specially designed” to avoid detection by monitoring tools or defeat protective countermeasures as well as extract data.

“Merely avoiding detection is not the same as being specially designed to avoid detection. It is quite possible for a software program to be unnoticed or unnoticeable by a given monitoring tool without that having been a design criterion,” the ECO said.

Some products, such as a commercial malware toolkit for law enforcement as well as training course materials, would likely meet the criterion. Meanwhile, open source penetration testing software, since it’s in the public domain, would not be controlled as intrusion software.

Want to know more?

Read more: How to Stop Stegoloader and Other Types of Digital Steganography Malware

Why not become a CSO member and subscribe to CSO's mailing list. 

Get newsletters, updates, events and more right here

Join the CSO newsletter!

Error: Please check your email address.

Tags US Commerce Departmentexport controlsciscopwn2ownWassenaar Arrangementsecurity researchersUK governmentinfosec researchersmalwareCSO AustraliaUKGoogle

More about CiscoCSOEUGoogleHPIntrusion

Show Comments

Featured Whitepapers

Editor's Recommendations

Solution Centres

Stories by Liam Tung

Latest Videos

  • 150x50

    CSO Webinar: The Human Factor - Your people are your biggest security weakness

    ​Speakers: David Lacey, Researcher and former CISO Royal Mail David Turner - Global Risk Management Expert Mark Guntrip - Group Manager, Email Protection, Proofpoint

    Play Video

  • 150x50

    CSO Webinar: Current ransomware defences are failing – but machine learning can drive a more proactive solution

    Speakers • Ty Miller, Director, Threat Intelligence • Mark Gregory, Leader, Network Engineering Research Group, RMIT • Jeff Lanza, Retired FBI Agent (USA) • Andy Solterbeck, VP Asia Pacific, Cylance • David Braue, CSO MC/Moderator What to expect: ​Hear from industry experts on the local and global ransomware threat landscape. Explore a new approach to dealing with ransomware using machine-learning techniques and by thinking about the problem in a fundamentally different way. Apply techniques for gathering insight into ransomware behaviour and find out what elements must go into a truly effective ransomware defence. Get a first-hand look at how ransomware actually works in practice, and how machine-learning techniques can pick up on its activities long before your employees do.

    Play Video

  • 150x50

    CSO Webinar: Get real about metadata to avoid a false sense of security

    Speakers: • Anthony Caruana – CSO MC and moderator • Ian Farquhar, Worldwide Virtual Security Team Lead, Gigamon • John Lindsay, Former CTO, iiNet • Skeeve Stevens, Futurist, Future Sumo • David Vaile - Vice chair of APF, Co-Convenor of the Cyberspace Law And Policy Community, UNSW Law Faculty This webinar covers: - A 101 on metadata - what it is and how to use it - Insight into a typical attack, what happens and what we would find when looking into the metadata - How to collect metadata, use this to detect attacks and get greater insight into how you can use this to protect your organisation - Learn how much raw data and metadata to retain and how long for - Get a reality check on how you're using your metadata and if this is enough to secure your organisation

    Play Video

  • 150x50

    CSO Webinar: How banking trojans work and how you can stop them

    CSO Webinar: How banking trojans work and how you can stop them Featuring: • John Baird, Director of Global Technology Production, Deutsche Bank • Samantha Macleod, GM Cyber Security, ME Bank • Sherrod DeGrippo, Director of Emerging Threats, Proofpoint (USA)

    Play Video

  • 150x50

    IDG Live Webinar:The right collaboration strategy will help your business take flight

    Speakers - Mike Harris, Engineering Services Manager, Jetstar - Christopher Johnson, IT Director APAC, 20th Century Fox - Brent Maxwell, Director of Information Systems, THE ICONIC - IDG MC/Moderator Anthony Caruana

    Play Video

More videos

Blog Posts