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Hewlett Packard has threatened to use computer crime laws and the controversial Digital Millennium Copyright Act to muzzle a group of security researchers who unearthed a flaw in its Tru64 operating system.

The threat comes in a letter to SnoSoft from HP Veep Kent Ferson warning that the security researchers "could be fined up to $500,000 and imprisoned for up to five years" for its role in publishing code that demonstrated the vulnerability, CNET's Declan McCullagh reports.

The warning letter from HP bears out the worst fears of the security industry that the DMCA will be used to stifle legitimate research, following on from the controversial prosecution of Russian programmer Dimitry Sklyarov and ElcomSoft.

Earlier this month, a member of SnoSoft posted an advisory on BugTraq about a buffer overflow concerning the su utility on Tru64 Unix systems, exploitation of which could be used to execute arbitrary instructions as root. The researcher, whose hacker handle is Phased and who has a Russian email address, posted links to exploit code explaining he was doing this because he had "got fed up of corporate bullshit".

A patch to guard against the vulnerability has not been released by HP and Phased didn't provide details of any workaround in his advisory, which would have been welcome.

So has HP been sitting on the problem or has Phased acted irresponsibly?

SnoSoft had notified HP about the Tru64 vulnerability some time before its "premature" release, though it's unclear how long HP had to work on the fix from reports so far.

SnoSoft co-founder Kevin Finisterre told CNET that Phased released the exploit code, which was created by another SnoSoft researcher, without permission from the rest of the group.

Kent Ferson, a vice president in HP's Unix systems unit, saw red about the posting and fired off a letter alleging that SnoSoft had breached the DMCA and the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act with its disclosure. He requested that SnoSoft help HP in removing details the exploit from Securityfocus.com, and to block further publicising the flaw. Any reluctance by SnoSoft to co-operate would be taken as a sign of bad faith, said Ferson, who warned that it reserved the right to sue SnoSoft for damages caused by its advisory.

Snosoft's Finisterre told the news service that although he wanted to resolve the dispute with HP, he resented been threatened.

"We are like the guys that found out that Firestone tires have issues on Ford explorers," he said. "It's not our fault your Explorer has crap tires. We just pointed it out." ®

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