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[ISN] UK gov sets rules for hacker tool ban
By John Leyden
2nd January 2008
The UK government has published guidelines for the application of a law
that makes it illegal to create or distribute so-called "hacking tools".
The controversial measure is among amendments to the Computer Misuse Act
included in the Police and Justice Act 2006. However, the ban along with
measures to increase the maximum penalty for hacking offences to ten
years and make denial of service offences clearly illegal, are still not
in force and probably won't be until May 2008 in order not to create
overlap with the Serious Crime Bill, currently making its way through
the House of Commons.
A revamp of the UK's outdated computer crime laws is long overdue.
However, provisions to ban the development, ownership and distribution
of so-called "hacker tools" draw sharp criticism from industry. Critics
point out that many of these tools are used by system administrators and
security consultants quite legitimately to probe for vulnerabilities in
The distinctions between, for example, a password cracker and a password
recovery tool, or a utility designed to run denial of service attacks
and one designed to stress-test a network, are subtle. The problem is
that anything from nmap through wireshark to perl can be used for both
legitimate and illicit purposes, in much the same way that a hammer can
be used for putting up shelving or breaking into a car.
Following industry lobbying the government has come through with
guidelines that address some, but not all, of these concerns about
"dual-use" tools. The guidelines establish that to successfully
prosecute the author of a tool it needs to be shown that they intended
it to be used to commit computer crime. But the Home Office, despite
lobbying, refused to withdraw the distribution offence. This leaves the
door open to prosecute people who distribute a tool, such as nmap,
that's subsequently abused by hackers.
The Crown Prosecution Service guidance, published after a long delay on
Monday, also asks prosecutors to consider if an article is "available on
a wide scale commercial basis and sold through legitimate channels".
Critics argue this test fails to factor in the widespread use of open
source tools or rapid product innovation.
IT and the law are never easy bedfellows. While the guidelines probably
make it less likely the security consultants will be prosecuted by
over-zealous lawyers for actions they don't understand are legitimate,
they are still a bit of a mess.
Richard Clayton, a security researcher at Cambridge University and
long-time contributor to UK security policy working groups, has a useful
analysis of the proposals here.
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