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Whitehat ‘Max Vision’ gets 18 months

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Computer security researcher and former FBI informant Max Butler aka 'Max Vision' was sentenced Monday to 18 months in prison for launching an Internet worm that crawled through hundreds of military and defense contractor computers over a few days in 1998.

In handing down the sentence, federal judge James Ware rejected defense attorney Jennifer Granick's argument that the Air Force, and other victims of the worm, improperly calculated their financial losses from the hack. The judge also declined to give Butler credit for his brief stint as an undercover FBI informant, during which he infiltrated a gang of hackers that had penetrated 3Com's corporate phone network.

But the judge refused prosecutor Ross Nadel's request that Butler be immediately taken into custody in the courtroom, and allowed the hacker to remain free on bail until June 25th, when he's scheduled to report to prison. With credit for good behavior, Butler will be eligible for assignment to a community halfway house as early as April of next year, and will be released in mid-October 2002.

He'll then serve three years of supervised release during which, under a special order, Butler will be barred from accessing the Internet without permission of his probation officer. Ware also ordered Butler to pay $60,000 in restitution.

A consultant who specializes in performing penetration tests on corporate networks, the 28-year-old remained well regarded in computer security circles even after his March, 2000 indictment. Butler is known for his expertise in intrusion detection: the science of automatically analyzing Internet traffic for attack signatures; and he created arachnids, a popular open source catalog of signatures that forms part of an overall public resource at WhiteHats.com.

Butler crossed the line in June of 1998, at a time when much of the Internet was still vulnerable to a hole that had been discovered months earlier in a ubiquitous piece of software called the BIND "named" domain server. The hacker group ADM published a computer program capable of spreading through vulnerable systems automatically. Butler launched a special strain of the worm that penetrated systems, but also automatically closed the BIND hole as it spread, forestalling attacks from other hackers.

Tall and soft-spoken, wearing a blazer and rumpled cargo pants, the hacker apologetically told Judge Ware that he got caught up in the need to close a serious security hole.

"I got swept up," said Butler. "It's hard to explain the feelings of someone who's gotten caught up in the computer security field... I felt at the time that I was in a race. That if I went in and closed the holes quickly, I could do it before people with more malicious intentions could use them."

Butler did not address why he left malevolent features from the ADM worm in his own program, including one that created a secret back door on every system it penetrated.

"What I did was reprehensible," Butler told the court. "I've hurt my reputation in the computer security field. I've hurt my family and friends."

Judge Ware emphasized the need to deter other hackers. "There's a need for those who would follow your footsteps to know that this can result in incarceration," said Ware.

© 2001 SecurityFocus.com, all rights reserved.

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