It could almost pass as a routine computer crime case -- a year-long probe
leads Scotland Yard cybercops to a home in the upscale London suburb of
Surbiton, where they seize computer equipment and arrest a 21-year-old man
under the UK's 1990 Computer Misuse Act.
But last Thursday's raid was anything but
routine, because the unnamed suspect, who has not yet been formally charged,
isn't accused of cracking computers, launching a denial of service attack or
distributing a virus. Instead, the joint Scotland Yard/FBI investigation is
focused on his alleged authorship of the "T0rnkit," a collection of custom
programs that help an intruder hide their presence on a hacked Linux
machine. It's apparently the first time the UK's national computer crime
law has been used to crack down on a programmer for writing a tool with
malicious applications -- and it's a chilling development to some security
researchers and electronic civil libertarians.
"I would definitely see it as troublesome," says Lee Tien, senior staff
attorney at the Electronic Frontier Foundation. "It's something we have to
look at very closely, because the general idea that you can go after someone
criminally for simply writing a program raises issues."
T0rnkit first began
showing up on hacked boxes two years ago. Like other so-called "rootkits,"
it includes programs that an intruder can drop into place over genuine
system commands that render the attacker invisible to the computer's
administrator. A replacement "ps" command, for example, will omit the
hacker's network sniffer from a list of processes running on the machine,
where an unadulterated version of the command would finger the intruder.
The package also includes a backdoor function that allows the attacker to
covertly return to a machine that they've hacked. "The more recent ones have
had loadable kernel modules, distributed denial of service tools, and stuff
like that," says Dave Dittrich, senior security engineer at the University
of Washington. "Most of the versions are circulated in the underground, and
they're tightly held."
In 2001, Chinese virus writers incorporated a modified T0rnkit into the
nasty "Lion" worm. But the kit itself is not a virus; it can't spread on its
own accord. And the man arrested last week -- now free pending an October
19th court appearance -- is not accused of breaking into any computers, or
of falling in with Chinese cybergangs. "The writing and distribution of the
tool is the offense," a Scotland Yard spokesman confirmed in a telephone
And that worries some computer security researchers, who find it all to easy
to visualize themselves in the position of the anonymous UK suspect.
So-called "white hat" hackers often create programs with potentially
malicious applications as an exercise, or to advance the published research
base -- active intruders tend to keep their work private.
"I've written tools myself that have only marginal social value, so it
actually concerns me quite a bit," says Mark Loveless, a senior security
analyst with Bindview Corporation. "I'm worried that something like that
could happen to someone just because they have a high profile."
"PRETTY FRIGHTENING". Researchers are even publicly working
on a rootkit for Windows NT machines, a project that's headed -- not by
anonymous denizens of the cyber underground -- but by Greg Hoglund,
co-founder and CTO of security software company Cenzic, Inc. Aside from
research projects, many security professionals use hacker tools to perform
legitimate "penetration tests" against clients. And some of the most common
security tools like nmap or TCPdump can be used for good or ill.
"If they're arresting guys just for writing tools, that's pretty
frightening," says Steve Manzuik, co-moderator of the VulnWatch security
mailing list. "I guess anyone who's written a security type tool should be
concerned if this is going to become the next trend."
It's not a trend yet, but outlawing hacker tools has never been far from law
enforcement thoughts. Last year 33 countries, including the UK and the U.S.,
signed the Council of Europe's international cybercrime treaty, which
recommends prohibiting the creation or distribution of a hacking tool with
the intent that it be used to commit a crime, though a last minute change to
the treaty allows signatory countries to opt out of the provision.
So far, laws explicitly outlawing hacker tools are hard to find. The UK's
Computer Misuse Act applies to
someone who "causes a computer to perform any function with intent to secure
access to any program or data held in any computer," knowing that he or she
is acting without authorization. The hacker doesn't have to direct the
attack against any particular computer to be culpable under the law, which
carries up to two years in prison for a first time offense -- seven, if
But the legalese, not dissimilar to U.S. computer crime laws, still allows
prosecutors some wiggle room. "You might not have a direct offense in the
computer crime law, but if there's an aiding and abetting or
solicitation -- those inchoate offenses -- you don't necessarily have to
have it in the law," says Tien.
Jennifer Granick, director of Stanford Law School's Center for Internet and
Society, says the result could be a kind of Sklyarov-in-reverse. Following
the arrest of a Russian programmer at a Las Vegas conference last year, some
cryptographic researchers professed reluctance to make presentations in the
U.S. for fear of running afoul of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act,
which prohibits distributing or using tools that circumvent copy protection
schemes. Depending on what happens in the T0rn case -- which is still in the
earliest stage -- U.S. security researchers may develop a reciprocal
aversion to the U.K.
"If this is really against their law, then you have jurisdictional
problems," says Granick. "Anywhere a tool is written, if it becomes
available in the UK, that becomes a crime... All sorts of researchers would
have to hesitate before visiting the UK." By Kevin Poulsen