The chilling effect

How the Web makes creating software vulnerabilities easier, disclosing them more difficult and discovering them possibly illegal.

Discovery is (not?) a crime

RSnake is not alone in his skepticism over proper channels being used for something like XSS vulnerabilities. Wysopal himself says that responsible disclosure guidelines, ones he helped develop, "don't apply at all with Web vulnerabilities." Implicit in his and Christey's process was the idea that the person disclosing the vulnerabilities was entitled to discover them in the first place, that the software was theirs to inspect. (Even on your own software, the end user license agreement -- EULA -- and the Digital Millennium Copyright Act -- DMCA -- limit what you can do with/to it). The seemingly endless string of websites RSnake and the small band of hackers had outed were not theirs to audit.

Disclosing the XSS vulnerabilities on those websites was implicitly confessing to having discovered that vulnerability. Posting the exploit code -- no matter how innocuous -- was definitive proof of discovery. That, it turns out, might be illegal.

No one knows for sure yet if it is, but how the law develops will determine whether vulnerability research will get back on track or devolve into the unorganized bazaar that it once was and that RSnake's discussion board hints it could be.

The case law in this space is sparse, but one of the few recent cases that address vulnerability discovery is not encouraging. A man named Eric McCarty, after allegedly being denied admission to the University of Southern California, hacked the online admission system, copied seven records from the database and mailed the information under a pseudonym to a security news website. The website notified the university and subsequently published information about the vulnerability. McCarty made little attempt to cover his tracks and even blogged about the hack. Soon enough, he was charged with a crime. The case is somewhat addled, says Jennifer Granick, a prominent lawyer in the vulnerability disclosure field and executive director at Stanford's Center for Internet and Society. "The prosecutor argued that it's because he copied the data and sent it to an unauthorized person that he's being charged," says Granick, "but copying data isn't illegal. So you're prosecuting for unauthorized testing of the system" -- what any Web vulnerability discoverer is doing -- "but you're motivated by what they did with the information. It's kind of scary."

Two cases in a similar vein preceded McCarty's. One was acquitted in less than half an hour, Granick says; in the other, prosecutors managed to convict the hacker, but, in a strange twist, they dropped the conviction on appeal (Granick represented the defendant on the appeal). In the USC case, though, McCarty pleaded guilty to unauthorized access. Granick calls this "terrible and detrimental."

"Law says you can't access computers without permission," she explains. "Permission on a website is implied. So far, we've relied on that. The Internet couldn't work if you had to get permission every time you wanted to access something. But what if you're using a website in a way that's possible but that the owner didn't intend? The question is whether the law prohibits you from exploring all the ways a website works," including through vulnerabilities.

Granick would like to see a rule established that states it's not illegal to report truthful information about a website vulnerability, when that information is gleaned from taking the steps necessary to find the vulnerability, in other words, benevolently exploiting it. "Reporting how a website works has to be different than attacking a website," she says. "Without it, you encourage bad disclosure, or people won't do it at all because they're afraid of the consequences." Already many researchers, including Meunier at Purdue, have come to view a request for a researchers' proof-of-concept exploit code as a potentially aggressive tactic. Handing it over, Meunier says, is a bad idea because it's proof that you've explored the website in a way the person you're giving the code to did not intend. The victim you're trying to help could submit that as Exhibit A in a criminal trial against you.

RSnake says he thought about these issues before he started his discussion thread. "I went back and forth personally," he says. "Frankly, I don't think it's really illegal. I have no interest in exploiting the Web." As for others on the discussion board "everyone on my board, I believe, is nonmalicious." But he acknowledges that the specter of illegality and the uncertainty surrounding Web vulnerability disclosure are driving some researchers away and driving others, just as Granick predicted, to try to disclose anonymously or through back channels, which he says is unfortunate. "We're like a security lab. Trying to shut us down is the exact wrong response. It doesn't make the problem go away. If anything, it makes it worse. What we're doing is not meant to hurt companies. It's meant to make them protect themselves. I'm a consumer advocate."

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