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Judge refuses to lift order squelching students' subway card hack

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A federal judge has refused to strike down an order gagging three Massachusetts Institute of Technology undergraduates from discussing gaping security holes in electronic payment systems used by Boston's transit agency.

US District Judge George A. O'Toole Jr. let a previous order stand, despite arguments from Electronic Frontier Foundation attorneys that it is an unconstitutional infringement on the students' free speech rights. The judge also ordered the trio to turn over additional documents.

Rebecca Jeschke, a spokeswoman with the EFF, said lawyers planned to "seek relief" in federal appeals court as soon as possible.

Thursday's hearing came five days after the Massachusetts Bay Transit Authority obtained a temporary restraining order forbidding Zack Anderson, RJ Ryan and Alessandro Chiesa from discussing their research at the Defcon hacking conference. The students had been scheduled to deliver a talk exposing flaws in the MBTA's CharlieTicket and CharlieCard, which passengers use to pay fares electronically on the Boston subway system.

O'Toole effectively put off making a decision on the EFF's constitutional arguments until a hearing on Tuesday, when the temporary restraining order is scheduled to expire. The EFF had asked O'Toole to lift the order immediately.

O'Toole ordered the trio to turn over a report they prepared for Ronald Rivest, the renowned cryptographer and MIT professor who awarded his students an A for their research. They are also required to surrender code that was to accompany their Defcon presentation and email they exchanged with conference organizers. An 87-slide presentation (PDF) has been available on MIT's website for weeks now, and the students have also furnished the agency with an executive summary of their research.

Before the TRO was issued, Anderson said their research uncovered trivial ways to add hundreds of dollars in fare value to the cards. He said he and his colleagues never intended to show MBTA passengers how to do so. Some statements included in their presentation slides suggest the students planned to go beyond that limited scope.

The TRO was issued after a separate judge, Douglas Woodlock, found the MBTA was likely to prove the students violated the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act. EFF attorneys argue the statute governs the transmission of code to computers, not the verbal or written discussion of vulnerabilities.

Jim Kerstetter of CNET News, attended the hearing and has more here. The Tech, an MIT student newspaper, provides a detailed discussion of the research here. ®

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