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The Boston Trio and the MBTA

How the transport bods silenced security researchers

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The annual DEFCON conference in Las Vegas in early August got a bit more interesting than usual when three graduate students from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology were enjoined from giving a presentation by a court in Boston.

The three - Zach Anderson, RJ Ryan and Alessandro Chiesa - intended to present both a paper and slides to the assembled masses of hackers explaining certain configuration issues with respect to the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority (MBTA) fare card system for riding the Boston subway system. The fare card system, or Fare Media system, used stored value cards, known as CharlieCards, after a locally famous song by the Kingston Trio called Charlie on the MTA.

Let me tell you the story
Of some boys from MIT
On a tragic and fateful day
They put out some information
Kissed their career and reputation
And took for ride the MTA

The cards were subject to various cloning attacks, which would permit both sophisticated and unsophisticated hackers to create duplicate CharlieCards, and therefore evade payment for subway rides.

Needless to say, when the lawyers for the MBTA learned of the DEFCON presentation, they were not amused. While there are disputes about who contacted whom first, and precisely what information was going to be disclosed or not disclosed at the presentation, ultimately the MBTA went to court in Boston and obtained a temporary restraining order (TRO) preventing the release of certain information about the vulnerabilities. The TRO was eventually reversed by the court, but not until the trio was denied the opportunity to make their presentation. Of course, in keeping with the Streisand effect, where attempts to censor content merely draws attention to it, both the slides and the paper to be presented were widely disseminated in advance of the TRO.

Much of the debate over the TRO has focused on the prior restraint on free speech aspects of the case. However, more important to security researchers are the questions of responsible or irresponsible disclosure of security vulnerabilities, and potential civil or criminal liability for doing so.

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