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BBC zombie caper slammed by security pros

Daft Beeb-bot doco gets go-ahead

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Analysis A controversial BBC Click documentary which involved researchers obtaining access to a botnet and sending spam is due to screen this weekend despite a growing storm of criticism.

Security experts - including McAfee, a firm whose representatives appear in the programme - have described the exercise as misguided and unnecessary. Legal experts contacted by El Reg reckon the show potentially breaches the unauthorised modifications provisions of the Computer Misuse Act, the UK's computer hacking law.

The BBC's only response to the growing row to date has been a post from @BBCClick on Twitter stating: "We would not put out a show like this one without having taken legal advice."

BBC Click obtained access to a botnet of 22,000 compromised Windows PCs from an underground forum. It used these machines to send junk mail to two accounts it had established with Gmail and Hotmail. The programme also used these compromised PCs to show how they might be used in a denial of service attack. After obtaining permission from security firm PrevX, it launched an assault that rendered a backup test site established by the firm unreachable.

Researchers warned the owners of the malware-infected PCs that their machines had the pox by changing their wallpaper to display a message from BBC Click explaining how to clean up their machines.

BBC Click twitters that the show was "six months in the making", adding "We're very happy with it and reckon it's a good watch".

Security experts are less impressed. Graham Cluley, senior technology consultant at Sophos, wrote a blog posting arguing that even though BBC Click had honourable intentions in raising awareness about botnets it didn't excuse potential breaches of the Computer Misuse Act and potentially computer crime laws in other countries.

"Maybe it isn't just UK computer crime laws that have been broken. What if one of the compromised computers was at the Department of Defense or NASA? Does Spencer Kelly [BBC Click reporter] want to be the next Gary McKinnon?"

Cluley put the question of whether or not the BBC's approach was justified up for debate among other security firms on Twitter. Kaspersky, AVG, McAfee, FaceTime and F-Secure all agreed that the BBC had behaved badly.

PrevX, which participated in the programme, has posted a combative response defending the BBC's tactics in a posting to the Escapist video game forum here.

Aside from PrevX, the general consensus seems to be that the whole exercise was about as dumb as a brain-dead zombie.

Both Sophos and McAfee reckon the behaviour of compromised machines could have been faked without resorting to using networks of compromised PCs. McAfee's reaction is particularly telling because Greg Day, a security researcher at McAfee, is interviewed in the programme. It turns out McAfee had little inkling of BBC Click's plans. Queried by El Reg on whether it reckoned BBC Click's tactics were ethical, McAfee gave a clear 'no':

McAfee conducted an interview about botnets with BBC Click in spring of 2008 but was not involved in the botnet experiment conducted for this programme. McAfee's conversation with BBC Click was a general discussion about botnets and a demonstration of what they are capable of, done within a contained environment at McAfee Avert Labs in Aylesbury. Although educating people about the dangers associated with the internet is a subject close to McAfee's heart, the company does not endorse the approach taken by the BBC to raise awareness of the issue of botnets.

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