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Full disclosure put on trial in France

Security research faces the guillotine?

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The trial of a French security researcher last week has become a cause celebre. Its outcome will decide if interested parties can "peek under the bonnet" in testing the road-worthiness of security products without falling foul of French law.

The case began more than three years ago when Guillaume Tena (AKA Guillermito) released proof of concept code to highlight security bypass and worm evasion flaws in Viguard, an antivirus product, from French company Tegam. Tena produced exploits showing that Tegam's generic anti-virus failed to stop "100 per cent of known and unknown viruses" as claimed. He posted his findings to a French usenet newsgroup in the summer of 2001 before published the research on a website in March 2002.

Tegam reacted by denouncing Tena as a 'terrorist', before sending its lawyers against him. In June 2002, Tena was prosecuted under violation of French copyright law. Tegam argued a warez version of its software was used in Tena's tests and claimed that he decompiled or disassembled Viguard and distributed part of its source code on his website. Tena denies these accusations. Tegam claims tens of thousands of Viguard users in France. However, the product is little used outside the country.

Tegam's case against Tena came to trial at a Tribunal correctionnel in Paris last week (4 January) with the prosecution calling for the 35 year-old to receive a suspended sentence of four months and a fine of €6,000. Tegam has raised the stakes and is demanding €900,000 in damages, a vast sum even the prosecutor isn't supporting. Tena, a French national researching molecular biology at Harvard University while working at Massachusetts General Hospital, hopes for an acquittal. A verdict is due to be returned on March 8.

Tena said the case could have a big impact on the French computer security community. "This case is not about violating intellectual property, it's about Tegam trying to shut me up," he told El Reg. "If security research is stifled, companies could produce a flawed product and no-one would know any better."

Although a molecular biologist by profession, Tena has maintained a hobby in computing (in particular anti-virus and steganography) since 1995. "I like to look inside programs for the same reason I'm interested in finding out the inner workings of cells," he explained.

Tena developed new viruses to test Tegam's product but he didn't post them on his website. He downplayed any suggestion his research could give ideas to malicious hackers or virus writers. Full disclosure postings are an effective means to pressurise vendors into producing more secure software, he argues.

French security researchers are alarmed at the possible impact of the case. "Full disclosure could become illegal in France," Gilles Fabienni, a security engineer at K-OTik Security Research, told The Register. He added that Tena's case predates the introduction of the EU Copyright Directive which tilts the scales of justice even further against French security researchers. ®

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