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Security researchers and legal experts have voiced concern this week over the prosecution of an information technology professional for computer intrusion after he allegedly breached a university's online application system while researching a flaw without the school's permission.

Last Thursday, the US Attorney's Office in the Central District of California leveled a single charge of computer intrusion against San Diego-based information technology professional Eric McCarty, alleging that he used a web exploit to illegally access an online application system for prospective students of the University of Southern California last June. The security issue, which could have allowed an attacker to manipulate a database of some 275,000 USC student and applicant records, was reported to SecurityFocus that same month. An article was published after the university was notified of the issue and fixed the vulnerable web application.

The prosecution of the IT professional that found the flaw shows that security researchers have to be increasingly careful of the legal minefield they are entering when reporting vulnerabilities, said Lee Tien, senior staff attorney for the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a digital-rights advocacy group.

"I think the bottom line is that anybody that does disclosures of security vulnerabilities has to be very careful (so as to) not be accused of being a hacker," Tien said. "The computer trespass laws are very, very tricky."

The case comes as reports of data breaches against corporations and universities are on the rise and could make security researchers less likely to bring flaws to the attention of websites, experts told SecurityFocus.

This week, the University of Texas at Austin stated that a data thief attacking from an internet address in the Far East likely copied 197,000 personal records, many containing social security numbers. In September, a Massachusetts teenager was sentenced to 11 months in a juvenile detention facility for hacking into telecommunications provider T-mobile and data collection firm Lexis-Nexis. And, in March, an unidentified hacker posted on the Business Week Online website instructions on how to hack into the admissions site of top business schools using a flaw in the ApplyYourself admissions program.

Eric McCarty, reached on Friday at the cell phone number published in the affidavit provided by the FBI in the case, said security researchers should take note that websites would rather be insecure than have flaws pointed out.

"Keep them to yourself - being a good guy gets you prosecuted," McCarty said during the interview. "I can say honestly that I am no longer interested in assisting anyone with their vulnerabilities."

McCarty confirmed that he had contacted SecurityFocus in June, offered information about the means of contact as proof, and waived the initial agreement between himself and this reporter to not be named in subsequent articles.

When the FBI came knocking in August, McCarty had told them everything, believing he had nothing to hide, he said.

"The case is cut and dried," McCarty said. "The logs are all there and I never attempted to hide or not disclose anything. I found the vulnerability, and I reported it to them (USC) to try to prevent identity theft."

McCarty admitted he had accessed the database at the University of Southern California, but stressed that he had only copied a small number of records to prove the vulnerability existed. The FBI's affidavit, which states that a file with seven records from the database was found on McCarty's computer, does not claim that the IT professional attempted to use the personal records for any other purpose.

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