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[ISN] UK gov sets rules for hacker tool ban


By John Leyden
The Register
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A revamp of the UK's outdated computer crime laws is long overdue.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 
corporate systems.

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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