WASHINGTON -- Do good intentions count in a network intrusion, or should
well-meaning hackers be prosecuted just like any other computer criminal?
A panel of information security experts chewed on that issue at a security
conference here Monday -- and for one of them, the question was more than
"Obviously, nobody wants to be compromised and it's never a one-hundred
percent pleasant experience," said Adrian Lamo, described in the conference
program as a communication phenomena researcher. "But I'd like to see more
receptivity to processing compromises that don't result in damage, without
necessary destroying the life of the person involved."
The conference on "Information Security in the Age of Terrorism," hosted by
the American Management Association, was Lamo's first public appearance
since his high-profile hack of the New York Times internal network
last month, in which he exploited lax security to tap a database of 3,000
Times op-ed contributors, culling such tidbits of information as
Robert Redford's social-security number, and former president Jimmy Carter's
home phone number.
The 21-year-old Lamo has a year-long
history of exposing gaping security holes at large corporations, then
voluntarily helping them fix the vulnerabilities he exploited -- sometime
visiting their offices or signing non-disclosure agreements in the process.
So far, his helpful habits have kept him from being prosecuted, and some
companies have even professed gratitude for his efforts. In December, Lamo
was praised by communications giant WorldCom after he discovered, then
helped close, security holes in their intranet that threatened to expose the
private networks of Bank of America, CitiCorp, JP Morgan, and others.
But one month after Lamo notified the New York Times of its
vulnerabilities through a SecurityFocus Online reporter, the Times
intrusion remains a sword of Damocles suspended over the hacker's head. The
paper hasn't sought Lamo's assistance, and isn't thanking him for the
attention. "We're still investigating and exploring all of the options,"
said spokesperson Christine Mohan on Monday. Asked if the Times is
contemplating filing a criminal complaint with the FBI, Mohan added, "That
is one of the options."
Though he's made friends of many of his targets, Lamo doesn't dispute that
cracking their networks without permission violated federal computer crime
laws. But none of the security professionals alongside him on Monday's panel
would condemn illegal computer intrusion as unacceptable in and of itself.
Instead, they generally agreed that there should be room for a benign hacker
to notify an organization of a vulnerability without being prosecuted for
exploiting it, and said the decision to prosecute was properly left in the
hands of the hacked organizations, and government prosecutors.
"The companies who are approached by Adrian and folks like him should have a
gentleman's understanding that they won't bring him to prosecutors," said
Richard Forno, CTO of Shadowlogic. (Forno is a columnist for SecurityFocus
The factors to consider: whether the intruder causes harm, what they do with
their access, and how quickly they come clean with the organization they've
"Ethical hackers who don't do damage and push the state of the art in
security, they're providing a valuable service," said Jonathan Couch, Sr., a
network security engineer at Sytex Inc. "The government needs to have the
discretion not to prosecute."
But all the talk of limited amnesty for hackers was too much for NFR
Security CTO Marcus Ranum, who signaled his dissent by applauding alone from
the back of the room at the mention of a legislative proposal that would
make some hackers eligible for life imprisonment. "You guys are a bunch of
security professionals and you're sitting here making apologies for
hackers," said Ranum. "That's the lamest thing I've never heard of."
In an interview later, Ranum called Lamo a "sociopath," and said his hacks
are indefensible. "It's against the law, how much more cut and dry can you
get?" said Ranum. "If society was comfortable with what's he's doing, they'd
change the law."
Even panelists without Ranum's moral certitude said after the session that
Lamo would flunk their own test for hacker amnesty, primarily because he
often enjoys illicit access to a network for weeks before telling the
company. Such was the case in the New York Times intrusion.
"He had access to internal, sensitive, private information, and he didn't
give up his access until he was ready," said Brian Martin, a security
consultant for CACI-NSG, and a former hacker himself. "I don't necessarily
think he should do time, but I don't think he should be exempt just because
he reported it."
"As soon as he found a significant hole, he should have reported it," said
Forno. "But to find a way in, prowl around for four or five weeks, and then
report it -- that should be criminal."
Lamo responded that the elapsed time before he reports a hack is a function
of his vagabond style: he frequently finds a hole in a network, then wanders
away only to return days or weeks later to prod a little more. "The reality
is, this is not what I do for a living," said Lamo. "It is a hobby."
What seems certain is that Lamo's hobby is going to fuel more controversy.
Some observers think he'd be better off collecting stamps. "I don't see how
it can stay this way," said Chris Wysopal, director of research and
development for @Stake. "I think once there are people following in his
footsteps, there might be a clampdown."