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UK.gov delay means hacking laws are so last century

Confusion reigns everywhere but Scotland

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The government has suspended legislation to update the outdated Computer Misuse Act in England, Wales and Northern Ireland, leaving Scotland the only part of the UK with laws to tackle 21st century hackers.

Amendments to the CMA - which was passed in 1990 before the widespread use of the internet - were due to come into force this month, but have been put back to deal with issues including overlaps with other legislation. Measures to clearly outlaw denial of service attacks including other amendments to the CMA were approved by Parliament two years ago when it passed the Police and Justice Act 2006.

These amendments were themselves to be amended by the Serious Crime Act 2007. The Home Office decided to apply all these changes at once to avoid confusion.

But, as security researcher Richard Clayton of Cambridge University notes, the Scottish Parliament took a different tack and used a statutory instrument (here) to bring the first set of these changes into force in Scotland last October (Scotland has devolved authority over areas including computer crime law).

This means that in Scotland (but not south of the border) individuals can be prosecuted for denial-of-service attacks or distributing hacking tools*, but not if the alleged offences happened in England and Wales - at least, not yet.

The anomaly was due to be resolved this month but has now been delayed for an unspecified period. "We are still considering when to bring in the legislation," a Home Office spokeswoman told Computing.

Security researcher Clive Feather has produced a marked-up copy of the Computer Misuse Act in colours to show how UK hacking law currently stands and how it might soon change here. ®

*An outright ban on so-called hacking tools, contained in initial drafts of the legislation, that might have criminalised security pros was modified after lobbying, so that simply using dual use tools such as nmap or wireshark without intent to commit crime would not be an offence. Obtaining, adapting, supplying or offering to supply tools such as wireshark would likewise be above board. But distributing such dual use tools remains an offence, to the chagrin of security experts.

Dual-use tools can be used to either to test the security of a network or by hackers to look for weaknesses.

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