How do you fix a leaky Net?

Brian West says he was doing a public service when he pointed out a security hole in an Oklahoma newspaper's Web site. So why did the editor in chief call the cops?

Published August 29, 2001 7:30PM (EDT)

Brian K. West simply wanted to see how his company's advertisement would look in the online edition of the Poteau Daily News & Sun, his local Oklahoma newspaper. But while trying to create a mockup, he discovered a security flaw that let him put the ad on the actual home page of the newspaper. No password or permission was required. In fact, anyone with Microsoft's FrontPage -- a Web site development program used to create the newspaper's Web pages -- could go in and redesign at will, wreaking havoc on the home page's structure, color and text.

West, a 24-year-old sales and support employee of a nearby Internet service provider, didn't put his ad on the page or make any of these changes. He downloaded some files, apparently to verify the hole, then called the newspaper's editor in chief to let him know that his Web site wasn't secure -- that anyone could get in and "edit your stories."

But instead of thanking him, the suspicious editor contacted the police, setting in motion a chain of events that would lead to an 18-month FBI investigation and an invitation to appear before a grand jury Sept. 5.

In the community of hackers, the details outlined above could be expected to result in West's immediate treatment as a hero, a well-meaning altruist trapped by an undiscriminating justice system. Protests could have been scheduled, money raised. Like the recently indicted Russian programmer Dmitry Sklyarov, accused of illegally distributing code that unlocks electronic books, West might have become a poster child for reforms to laws that, according to critics, treat security research as a crime rather than a virtuous act of science.

But even though charges have not yet been filed, West is not getting the hacker hero treatment. The reason? According to court documents West didn't just warn the Poteau Daily News about the hole; among the items he downloaded were files containing source code and passwords for the proprietary software that the newspaper's editors used to post stories from remote locations. It was only a beta version, and it's not clear whether West knew what he was downloading, but because the newspaper bought the software from an Internet service provider that was a competitor to West's company, the act itself did much to tarnish West's "good Samaritan" image.

So, instead of becoming an icon, a victim and a martyr, he's instead a lightning rod for debate. Hundreds of people have written to the U.S. attorney in charge of the case since Aug. 17, when an abbreviated version of West's story appeared on the geek news site And while the prosecutor and West's lawyers exchange responses to the public outcry -- the latest volley appeared last Friday -- heavyweights in the world of security don't know what to make of West's actions. Some, like Richard M. Smith, CTO of the Privacy Foundation, argue that West went too far, while others argue that West "is just a guy who found a flaw and tried to fix it," as cryptography expert Bruce Schneier puts it. Even if he poked around a bit, these defenders say, he shouldn't be treated like a criminal. "The punishment doesn't fit the crime," Schneier says.

The debate itself is not new. It's been almost 20 years since hackers, geeks and lawmakers first started struggling with the question of how software vulnerabilities should be handled. Hackers -- as distinguished from crackers, who break and enter computer systems for purposes of profit or destruction -- have long argued that by pointing out security holes in software they are doing a public service. The companies who are the recipients of hacker explorations, and the vendors of software that is found to be vulnerable, often disagree, seeing hacker activity as illegal trespassing or worse. It's a tension that is at the core of hacker life; one could even argue that the "public service" theory is, at least in part, a rationalization aimed at justifying the results of hacker curiosity.

But even though the debate is old, the stakes keep rising. The laws as currently written are unfriendly to "unauthorized access," regardless of what the intent is. The passage of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) in 1998, which, among other things, made it illegal to do so much as reveal how copyright controls can be circumvented, has also upped the ante for those who like tinkering with other people's software. But while high-profile cases such as Sklyarov's and the DeCSS lawsuit wend their way through the courts, few experts in the technology community have offered clear alternatives that can be applied in the real world.

There's still not an accepted set of guidelines for how people like West should proceed -- and that's "a serious problem," says Jennifer Granick, a San Francisco attorney who regularly defends hackers. Until consensus is reached -- which won't be easy, she says -- West's mistakes are destined to be repeated. Every security researcher and every Net user who happens to find a security flaw is vulnerable. The witness stand could only be a mouse-click away.

Today's discussion of Internet security can be traced at least as far back as Robert Tappan Morris. In 1988, the 23-year-old doctoral student at Cornell released a 99-line program that ate its way through the Internet, propagating uncontrollably and slowing data transmission across the network nearly to a halt. In response to the unexpected shock, DARPA, (the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency), a federal agency that oversaw the Net, formed a group of experts who could coordinate responses to worms like Morris'.

The group soon called itself CERT -- for Computer Emergency Response Team -- and the plan it came up with seemed simple. People were supposed to send information on vulnerabilities to the group; CERT would then verify that the hole existed and alert the vendor. Publishing only occurred once the vendor plugged the hole.

CERT still maintains the procedure, but after a few years, people started to rebel. "There were three main complaints," writes Schneier in an essay on the issue of publicizing vulnerabilities. "First, CERT got a lot of vulnerabilities reported to it, and there were complaints about CERT being slow in verifying them. Second, the vendors were slow about fixing the vulnerabilities once CERT told them. And third, CERT was slow about publishing reports even after the fixes were implemented."

Hackers who spotted vulnerabilities weren't the only ones unhappy with CERT's lack of speed. The larger community of computer scientists and, in particular, systems administrators and security specialists entrusted with the responsibility of keeping networks safe and reliable, also chafed at the ponderous pace. By the time a vendor plugged a hole in its software, a great deal of mischief could already have occurred.

Frustration with CERT led to what's now called "the full-disclosure movement" -- based on the hacker-friendly philosophy that more information is always better. Scott Chasin led the way, creating a mailing list in 1993 called Bugtraq that promised to publish vulnerabilities regardless of vendor response. Bugtraq's policies led to friction with vendors of software. Not only do software companies detest the bad publicity that is associated with news reports announcing serious problems with the software, but they are also wont to argue that publicizing a breach before a fix is available is tantamount to inviting a horde of juvenile delinquents to rummage through your unlocked home.

But "the environment at that time was such that vendors weren't making any patches," says Elias Levy, an early Bugtraq subscriber who has moderated the list since 1996. "So the focus was on how to fix software that companies weren't fixing."

Only a few hundred people signed up at first. In 1996, only 2,000 people subscribed.

But the messy dangers of security research hit home while Bugtraq was just getting started. In 1993, Randal Schwartz, an independent contractor working for Intel, decided to run a program that tested the vulnerability of passwords on the company's network. The program (called Crack) found 48 "weak" passwords (words that would be easy to guess) but Schwartz was hardly rewarded for his vigilance. Instead, he became the target of a criminal investigation, at the direct request of his own employer. An indictment came down in 1994 and in 1995, an Oregon judge sentenced him to 480 hours of community service, five years of probation, 90 days in jail and $68,471.45 in restitution. The Oregon Court of Appeals eventually suspended the jail time and reversed the restitution order, but upheld all the convictions.

"I'm now a triple felon for merely wanting to help my main client of five years, by running a simple tool to gather evidence that another group within the company was not providing the minimum company-mandated standard level of protection," Schwartz says. "This is crazy. All I wanted to do was help."

Then, Internet mania struck. With millions coming online, dot-coms appearing out of thin air and Web-based services like Hotmail growing exponentially, the security environment radically changed. More holes appeared and more people found them. Today, Bugtraq counts 46,000 subscribers, many of them journalists who spread news of vulnerabilities to millions.

The expanded attention at Bugtraq and other places on the Net has fueled the already heated debate. The discussion that had once taken place in the equivalent of a small theater has now moved into a cacophonous coliseum. Some maintain that those who exploit a vulnerability in order to prove that it exists are violating property rights. Others follow CERT's moderate stance, arguing that testing a hole was fine as long as the tester told the vendor about the hole and kept the vulnerability private.

At the other end of the spectrum sit those who take a more libertarian line. They argue that ferreting out vulnerabilities -- by any means possible -- is the best way to keep them from forming in the future. Some diehards even declare that high-profile crackers like Kevin Mitnick -- the notorious computer expert who spent five years in jail for illegally accessing corporate networks -- should be lauded as heroes, cyber-investigators who showed the world how fragile networks could be.

"These problems are complex and ambiguous," says Smith of the Privacy Foundation.

"It's an extremely difficult issue," adds Schneier, echoing the sentiments of other security experts. "The more I look at it, the harder it seems to get."

West's case sidesteps a few of these difficulties. He didn't attempt to publish the vulnerability at the Poteau Daily News, and, according to his lawyer, didn't intentionally copy valuable security software as Mitnick did.

But his case is powerfully relevant. Experts say that his actions at the Poteau site -- from finding the hole to downloading a competitor's publishing software and a file which had the passwords and log-ins that offered access to that software -- reignite many of the difficult questions that the technology community and courts are still trying to answer.

Does everyone have a right to look under the hood of every product they buy, of every Web site they can access? Once someone finds a possible vulnerability, must he or she inform whatever company might be affected by it? If someone exploits a vulnerability in order to verify that it exists, should the access be considered criminal, or does it depend on what is gained through the act of exploitation? Or, even more subjectively, does it depend on the intent of the hacker?

Even before West discovered the Poteau Daily News flaw, he had some experience with such queries. A few months prior, he noticed that his bank's online services included his account number in the URL, so by plugging in other numbers, he could (and allegedly did) access other peoples' accounts. He never changed these accounts, and told the bank about the flaw. They fixed it, without calling the cops.

West could have been prosecuted for his bank discovery too, just as was Randal Schwartz. The courts haven't given any clear answers to the burning questions surrounding computer access, says lawyer Granick. Although other people have found holes and been prosecuted for accessing private files, and in some cases for extortion -- charges that arise when people demand money for information on how to patch a given hole -- few of these cases went to trial. Most were settled without a judge's decision. There are exceptions, such as the DeCSS case, in which the publisher of the magazine 2600 was enjoined from distributing code that decrypts DVDs. But for the most part, the courts haven't clarified the laws surrounding security, so enforcement tends to be subjective.

"The whole concept of 'unauthorized access' is in question," Granick says. "There isn't enough case law to go on."

So, in the absence of legal authority, can the ambiguities be eliminated, or at least diminished? Granick, Smith, Levy and other security experts suggest that a formal, accepted set of guidelines -- voted on and supported by the security industry -- would improve the situation.

Granick argues that the resulting code should treat the Internet as an entity unto itself, rather than some kind of electronic home.

"The problem lies with the notion of 'went in,'" she says. "There's a barrier to going into a house or store that doesn't make sense in a computer context. If you type something in and see something you're not supposed to see, it's not the same as walking into someone's house. It's more like walking by a window without the shades being drawn."

Schwartz holds to a similar line. "There must be safe harbor for the people trying to help," he says, because otherwise holes will proliferate. When the law doesn't allow researchers the freedom to find and plug holes, bugs will go unreported; fear will keep the helpful away, leaving room for the intentionally malicious. "Everyone loses," he says. "And as the law currently stands, it's the whistleblowers (like me) that stand to lose the most."

But others disagree with Granick's logic. Tony Morgan, co-owner of Cyberlink, the ISP that wrote the software West copied, argues that West didn't just see the vulnerability. "He exploited it," Morgan says. "Finding the hole wasn't wrong; I back the hackers and crackers on that. The illegal part is when someone takes or destroys something. We feel that [in West's case] the line was crossed."

And Morgan -- who claims the software West downloaded could be sold for about $5,000 -- isn't the only one arguing that computers should be treated like offline property.

"If you screw with a service [as opposed to a product], you're screwing with someone's property," says Levy of Bugtraq. "Most people who have been doing security research for a while wouldn't have done what Brian did. Most people would know that the first thing you should do is get a waiver to verify the vulnerability."

On the other hand, the DMCA is also problematic precisely because it treats digital content as its own unique animal. While traditional copyright law allows people to, say, copy a book for a school project, the DMCA makes no room for such fair uses of digital content. Simply showing people how to unlock an electronic book, as Sklyarov is now discovering, becomes cause for imprisonment.

People already think the Internet and other new technologies are more unique than they actually are, says Schneier. And because the general public errs on the side of fear rather than respect, he says "the law needs to be technologically neutral."

David Touretzky, a computer science professor at Carnegie Mellon who testified at the DeCSS trial, believes that new technologies should be treated like your local bank.

"It's a place of business, open to the public," he says. "But not every inch is open to the public. Suppose I go wandering down the hall and walk into some guy's private office and walk over to the desk and take a look at the papers lying out in plain view. Am I guilty of breaking and entering? No. Am I trespassing? Well, yeah, but the building was open the public."

At this point, because he would be somewhere he wasn't supposed to be, "the bank would be right to ask me to leave, maybe even tell me never to come back again," he says. "But having me arrested for wandering into an office? Nah. That would be overkill."

Still, with so many ideas swirling about, can a coherent set of guidelines ever form? At least one security expert -- Chris Wysopal, head of research and development at the security firm @Stake -- is making the attempt. But Wysopal, a former hacker who's known online as "Weld Pond," has just begun gathering industry input. Even though the Net would be better off "with a set of moral codes," says Schneier, the community probably won't come up with anything useful anytime soon.

"The only way to do it is through case law," he says. "That's how we did it with phones and wiretaps, and that's how it will happen here." West should not be punished harshly for his mistakes, he says, but regardless, the case may actually improve the present security environment. The only problem, he adds, is that the law moves slowly.

"It will take years to figure this out," Schneier says. "When the legal system hits Internet time, the results are a mess."

Brian West probably agrees.

By Damien Cave

Damien Cave is an associate editor at Rolling Stone and a contributing writer at Salon.

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