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Media, industry and cops baffled as Qld Police return hack’s iPad

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A leading Australian computer law and privacy researcher says Queensland Police’s “daft” decision to confiscate a journalist’s iPad last week could be a blessing in disguise.

Visiting Professor at the University of NSW's Cyberspace Law & Policy Centre Roger Clarke said: “On the surface of it, the plods who did the arresting may have done the rest of us a favour, by bringing focus to bear on a daft law, or a daft interpretation of a law.”

The iPad at the centre of the controversy was returned by Queensland Police at the end of last week.

Police had decided to seize the iPad, belonging to tech hack Ben Grubb, because he had used it to prepare coverage of a security presentation at the BSidesAU conference. The presentation by Christian Heinrich showed how content distribution networks can expose privacy-protected Facebook content. However, Heinrich decided to use the demo to target another researcher, Chris Gatford, with whom he has a long-running feud.

At the time, Queensland Police justified the confiscation by stating they believed it contained evidence of an alleged offence. However, Heinrich – who committed the alleged offence – has yet to be questioned.

The chairman of Electronic Frontiers Australia Colin Jacobs said that the group would be watching closely how the investigation unfolds to see if a crime was really committed.

“This case certainly shows there are shades of gray when it comes to ‘hacking’. A security professional demonstrating a privacy flaw in Facebook is not a hardened cyber-criminal. At what point does the effort required to exploit a bug cross the line into "hacking"? Are the police really able to make a determination of that so quickly?” Jacobs questioned. He added that Heinrich’s presentation, exposing such security holes, and Grubb’s reporting of it should be viewed as a warning to the public and a public service.

“Surely there's room for some nuance in this area as far as law enforcement goes. Sending police to a security conference, especially to arrest a journalist covering the event, seems to me a questionable allocation of resources,” Jacobs says.

Security specialist Stephen Gillies, who was a delegate at the conference, said that incident illustrates the need for security researchers to follow protocol when exposing vulnerabilities.

“There are specific and well understood ways to alert an organisation that security issues exist within their environment. Most large web based organisations have teams of engineers who respond to security threats and advisories,” he said.

He adds however that "the security industry has known for a long time that security by obscurity isn't security at all. Applications which allow an end user to guess information such as a URL string to access otherwise privileged information is, at best, ignorant of standard security practice.”

It is unclear whether Facebook was told of the security flaw prior to the presentation.

The Queensland Police action against Grubb was tinged with further irony as the detective in charge of the investigation is Detective Superintendent Brian Hay, was also presenting at the conference in what’s described as a bid to reach out to the security community and build stronger relationships with security professionals.

“It was disappointing that the Queensland police would then act in such a heavy handed and intimidating way towards someone reporting on information which had already been shared with a large number of people," Gillies said. ®

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