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UK cybercrime overhaul finally comes into effect

DDoS doubly illegal from 1 October

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Updates to the ageing Computer Misuse Act (CMA) finally come into force in England and Wales on Wednesday (1 October).

Modifications to the CMA - which was enacted in 1990 before the advent of the interweb - were included in the Police and Justice Act 2006. These changes were then themselves amended by the Serious Crime Act 2007. In order to avoid confusion the government decided to apply these changes all at once, through a (delayed) legislative order that comes into effect on 1 October.

Scotland has devolved authority in areas such as computer crime law, so measures such as the clear criminalisation of denial of service attacks entered the statue books north of the border a year ago in October 2007.

The amendments cover three main provisions. Though there was widespread agreement that the UK's existing computing law was outdated, each of the changes has attracted criticism to a greater or lesser degree.

First up, the maximum penalty for unauthorised access to a computer system (the least serious of three hacking offences covered in the original act) has been raised from six months to two years in prison, making the offence serious enough that an extradition request can be filed.

Denial of service attacks, previously something of a legal grey area, are now clearly criminal, with a maximum penalty of up to ten years behind bars. Requests to introduce changes along these lines were made repeatedly by industry representatives during parliamentary hearings on UK computer crime laws, but are nonetheless controversial in some circles.

Spyblog describes the changes as "ill-defined" and duplicated in the Identity Cards Act 2006 as far as attacks on the planned National Identity Register centralised database are concerned. The site suggests that industrial action by computer consultants and the like working on the database would become a criminal offence.

Thirdly the amended act makes it an offence to distribute hacking tools for criminal purposes. Politicians initially suggested an outright ban on so-called hacking tools, which would have made possession of dual-use software package such as Nmap a criminal offence. The technically illiterate measure would have turned white hat penetration testers into cybercrooks. Following industry lobbying the measures were modified but still include provisions that criminalise the distribution or creation of "hacking tools" where criminal intent can be established, modifications that have failed to satisfy security experts.

Spyblog's withering critique of the changes is well worth a read and can be found here. Security researcher Clive Feather has published colour-coded excerpts of the Computer Misuse Act highlighting the amendments here. ®

Bootnote

UK cybercrime laws derive from those covering the tort of trespass whereas equivalent US law laws are based on older legislation covering fraud, hence the need in US law to prove that victims of cybercrime suffered damages.

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