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Is prosecuting hackers worth the bother?

When Sysadmins and Feds collide

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Internet Security Threat Report 2014

When you've been hacked, it's wise to evaluate the damage done before calling in the Feds, San Diego Supercomputer Center Security Manager Tom Perrine explained during the tenth annual USENIX Security Symposium in Washington last week, during a talk entitled "Cops are from Mars, Sysadmins are from Pluto: Dealing with Law Enforcement."

The first step should always be to decide what your goal ought to be -- whether merely to make the attacker stop, or to sue, or to prosecute.

"If you're a Fortune 500, there's about a 99.995 per cent chance that you're going to cover up and move on," Perrine quipped.

Thus its common for a large company to reward an investigator with a polite, 'thank you very much; you've shown us that it wasn't a competitor; we're done.'

Indeed, most companies believe that the PR cost of being identified in the media with weak security is far greater than the damage most malicious hackers can inflict. We don't know if that's true or not, but it is the prevailing sentiment.

"If you're a publicly traded company, that can get really interesting because shareholder lawsuits are a fact of life. The fact that you've 'been had' may have an effect on your stock prices; and if your shareholders don't like that then the company and the board may find themselves being sued, and they won't like that," Perrine warns.

Keeping it in-house

"Do your own investigation first, because you'll have more options, more latitude. You're a private citizen taking steps to protect yourself," Perrine recommends.

Once the Feds get involved, they're going to take over the show completely, and it will then play out at a painfully slow rate. Also, a great number of restrictions on what information can be collected and how it's to be gathered will immediately kick in.

On the other hand, if you handle it in-house, there's little that you can't do to protect a communications system. "If you want to sniff the networks, if you want to drop TCP dump on your inbound link and grab every single keystroke and every byte of data, you can do it."

Just make sure that you're not in violation of state law or institutional policy first, and make sure that you're acting to protect the network, not to advance an official investigation.

That's because the law is ambiguous as to whether an admin tracking a hacker might be regarded as an agent of the government if the case later ends up in criminal court. This would depend on when an admin makes contact with the authorities. Gathering information with a mind towards providing it to the Feds could be enough to make one an agent of the government, and bring with it the same constraints.

"If your goal is to make this person go away, then you're probably safe; if your goal is to gather information to turn this person over to law enforcement, then you may have a problem," Perrine observes.

For an agent of the government, or for a private citizen not engaged in the defense of a communications system, spying without court authorization is a felony.

And worse, if you should get caught in this little switch, you may end up in legal trouble as serious as the person you're tracking -- or worse, if the case against them dries up because your evidence is inadmissible and you're the only poor bastard left handy for the US Attorney to prosecute.

The thanks you'll get

Bear in mind before you contact the Feds that your goals and law enforcement's goals may be quite different; but once they get involved, their goals will become paramount.

Expect them to move very slowly and deliberately, and to require a great deal of detailed information about your business. Expect to be interviewed by federal agents at least once, probably more. Expect to be called as a witness if the case goes to trial.

Above all, "get your lawyers involved," Perrine urges. An admin can easily get jammed up in the middle between the Feds and his employer if for some reason the relationship between the principals should deteriorate.

Also, whenever you're cold-called by law enforcement, you should request their contact information and ring them back to verify that they're legitimate. There exist, Perrine notes, 'poachers' in blue who moonlight, involving themselves in cyber-incidents outside their jurisdictions because they see in it a route out of the patrol car and into a somewhat cleaner assignment. These vigilantes should never be indulged.

Generally -- unless there's some life-threatening emergency to which data on your system might provide a clue -- legitimate investigators will never cold-call outside of regular business hours. All understand that verifying their contact information is a normal practice which they encourage. Therefore, be suspicious of any officers who ring at odd hours, or are reluctant to make verifying their affiliation and rank easy for you.

And finally, never trust any organization -- not your employer, not law enforcement. Rather, establish relationships with individuals you feel you can trust, Perrine warns.

With that in mind, it's hardly a wonder that most victims 'cover up and move on.' Based on Perrine's description of the process, it seems that unless highly perishable data such as trade secrets have been pilfered by a competitor, that pound of flesh in criminal court may cost a good deal more than it's worth. ®

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