Feeds

Breach case could curtail web flaw finders

Being a good guy gets you prosecuted

5 things you didn’t know about cloud backup

To other security researchers, the case underscores the asymmetric legal power of websites in confronting flaw finders: Because finding any vulnerability in a server online necessarily means that the researcher had exceeded authorisation, the flaw finder has to rely on the mercy of the site when reporting, said HD Moore, a noted researcher and co-founder of the Metasploit Project.

"It is just a crappy situation in general right now," Moore said. "You have to count on the goodwill of the people running the site. There are cases when there are vulnerable websites out there, but unless you have an anonymous web browser and a way to hide your logs, there is no way to report a vulnerability safely."

Moore points to McCarty's case and the case of Daniel Cuthbert - who fell afoul of British law when he checked out the security of a charity website by attempting to access top-level directories on the web server - as warnings to researchers to leave websites alone. In October, Cuthbert was convicted of breaking the Computer Misuse Act, fined £400, and ordered to pay £600 in restitution.

Other researchers should be ready to pay as well, Moore said. Anyone who affects the performance of a server on the internet could find themselves in court, he said.

"Even if you look at the port scanning stuff - which is not technically illegal - if you knock down the server in the process of port scanning it, then you are liable for all the damages of it being down," Moore said.

Such legal issues are one reason for not testing websites at all, said security researcher David Aitel, chief technology officer of security services firm Immunity.

"We don't do research on websites," Aitel said, adding that the increasing reliance of programs on communicating with other programs has made avoiding web applications more difficult. "The more your applications are interconnected the more difficult it is to get permission to do vulnerability research."

Moreover, such a legal landscape does not benefit the internet companies, Aitel stressed. While companies may prefer to not know about a vulnerability rather than have it publicly reported, just because a vulnerability is not disclosed does not mean that the website is not threatened.

"If this is an SQL injection flaw that Eric McCarty can find by typing something into his web browser then it is retarded to think that no one else could do that," Aitel said.

The US Attorney's Office alleges that McCarty's actions caused the university to shutter its system for 10 days, resulting in $140,000 in damages. The university had provided investigators with an internet address which had suspiciously accessed the application system multiple times in a single hour, according to the affidavit provided by the FBI in the case. The information allowed the FBI to execute a search warrant against McCarty, discover the names of his accounts on Google's Gmail and subpoena those records from the internet giant, the court document stated. Among the emails were messages sent from an account - "ihackedusc@gmail.com" - -to SecurityFocus detailing the vulnerability, according to the affidavit.

The US Attorney's Office declined to comment for this article. A representative of the University of Southern California also declined to comment except to say that the school is cooperating with the investigation.

"It wasn't that he could access the database and showed that it could be bypassed," Michael Zweiback, an assistant US Attorney for the US Department of Justice's cybercrime and intellectual property crimes section, said last week after his office announced the charge. "He went beyond that and gained additional information regarding the personal records of the applicant. If you do that, you are going to face - like he does - prosecution."

Secure remote control for conventional and virtual desktops

More from The Register

next story
One HUNDRED FAMOUS LADIES exposed NUDE online
Celebrity women victimised as Apple iCloud accounts reportedly popped
Rubbish WPS config sees WiFi router keys popped in seconds
Another day, another way in to your home router
Goog says patch⁵⁰ your Chrome
64-bit browser loads cat vids FIFTEEN PERCENT faster!
NIST to sysadmins: clean up your SSH mess
Too many keys, too badly managed
Scratched PC-dispatch patch patched, hatched in batch rematch
Windows security update fixed after triggering blue screens (and screams) of death
Researchers camouflage haxxor traps with fake application traffic
Honeypots sweetened to resemble actual workloads, complete with 'secure' logins
Attack flogged through shiny-clicky social media buttons
66,000 users popped by malicious Flash fudging add-on
New Snowden leak: How NSA shared 850-billion-plus metadata records
'Federated search' spaffed info all over Five Eyes chums
Three quarters of South Korea popped in online gaming raids
Records used to plunder game items, sold off to low lifes
prev story

Whitepapers

Endpoint data privacy in the cloud is easier than you think
Innovations in encryption and storage resolve issues of data privacy and key requirements for companies to look for in a solution.
Implementing global e-invoicing with guaranteed legal certainty
Explaining the role local tax compliance plays in successful supply chain management and e-business and how leading global brands are addressing this.
Advanced data protection for your virtualized environments
Find a natural fit for optimizing protection for the often resource-constrained data protection process found in virtual environments.
Boost IT visibility and business value
How building a great service catalog relieves pressure points and demonstrates the value of IT service management.
Next gen security for virtualised datacentres
Legacy security solutions are inefficient due to the architectural differences between physical and virtual environments.