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Chapter: Security in Computing : Legal and Ethical Issues in Computer Security

Case Studies of Ethics: Ethics of Hacking or Cracking

What behavior is acceptable in cyberspace? Who owns or controls the Internet? Does malicious or nonmalicious intent matter? Legal issues are involved in the answers to these questions, but as we have pointed out previously, laws and the courts cannot protect everything, nor should we expect them to.

Case VIII: Ethics of Hacking or Cracking


What behavior is acceptable in cyberspace? Who owns or controls the Internet? Does malicious or nonmalicious intent matter? Legal issues are involved in the answers to these questions, but as we have pointed out previously, laws and the courts cannot protect everything, nor should we expect them to. Some people separate investigating computer security vulnerabilities from exploiting them, calling the former "white hat" hacking and the latter "black hat." It is futile to try to stop people from learning nor should we even try, for the sake of society, as Cross [CRO06] points out. There is reasonable debate over publication or dissemination of knowledge: Is the world safer if only a few are allowed to know how to build sophisticated weapons? Or how to break certain security systems? Is the public better served by open knowledge of system vulnerabilities? We recommend students, researchers, faculty, and technologists, and certainly users, join in thoughtful debate of this issue, one of the largest ethical matters in our field.


In this final case study we consider ethical behavior in a shared-use computing environment, such as the Internet. The questions are similar to "what behavior is acceptable in outer space?" or "who owns the oceans?"


Goli is a computer security consultant; she enjoys the challenge of finding and fixing security vulnerabilities. Independently wealthy, she does not need to work, so she has ample spare time in which to test the security of systems.


In her spare time, Goli does three things: First, she aggressively attacks commercial products for vulnerabilities. She is quite proud of the tools and approach she has developed, and she is quite successful at finding flaws. Second, she probes accessible systems on the Internet, and when she finds vulnerable sites, she contacts the owners to offer her services repairing the problems. Finally, she is a strong believer in high-quality pastry, and she plants small programs to slow performance in the web sites of pastry shops that do not use enough butter in their pastries. Let us examine these three actions in order.


Vulnerabilities in Commercial Products


We have already described a current debate regarding the vulnerability reporting process. Now let us explore the ethical issues involved in that debate.


Clearly from a rule-based ethical theory, attackers are wrong to perform malicious attacks. The appropriate theory seems to be one of consequence: who is helped or hurt by finding and publicizing flaws in products? Relevant parties are attackers, the vulnerability finder, the vendor, and the using public. Notoriety or credit for finding the flaw is a small interest. And the interests of the vendor (financial, public relations) are less important than the interests of users to have secure products. But how are the interests of users best served?


Full disclosure helps users assess the seriousness of the vulnerability and apply appropriate protection. But it also gives attackers more information with which to formulate attacks. Early full disclosurebefore the vendor has countermeasures readymay actually harm users by leaving them vulnerable to a now widely known attack.


Partial disclosurethe general nature of the vulnerability but not a detailed exploitation scenariomay forestall attackers. One can argue that the vulnerability details are there to be discovered; when a vendor announces a patch for an unspecified flaw in a product, the attackers will test that product aggressively and study the patch carefully to try to determine the vulnerability. Attackers will then spread a complete description of the vulnerability to other attackers through an underground network, and attacks will start against users who may not have applied the vendor's fix.


No disclosure. Perhaps users are best served by a scheme in which every so often new code is released, sometimes fixing security vulnerabilities, sometimes fixing things that are not security related, and sometimes adding new features. But without a sense of significance or urgency, users may not install this new code.


Searching for Vulnerabilities and Customers


What are the ethical issues involved in searching for vulnerabilities? Again, the party of greatest interest is the user community and the good or harm that can come from the search.


On the positive side, searching may find vulnerabilities. Clearly, it would be wrong for Goli to report vulnerabilities that were not there simply to get work, and it would also be wrong to report some but not all vulnerabilities to be able to use the additional vulnerabilities as future leverage against the client.


But suppose Goli does a diligent search for vulnerabilities and reports them to the potential client. Is that not similar to a service station owner's advising you that a headlight is not operating when you take your car in for gasoline? Not quite, you might say. The headlight flaw can be seen without any possible harm to your car; probing for vulnerabilities might cause your system to fail.


The ethical question seems to be which is greater: the potential for good or the potential for harm? And if the potential for good is stronger, how much stronger does it need to be to override the risk of harm?


This case is also related to the common practice of ostensible nonmalicious probing for vulnerabilities: Hackers see if they can access your system without your permission, perhaps by guessing a password. Spafford [SPA98] points out that many crackers simply want to look around, without damaging anything. As discussed in Sidebar 11-4, Spafford compares this seemingly innocent activity with entry into your house when the door is unlocked. Even when done without malicious intent, cracking can be a serious offense; at its worst, it has caused millions of dollars in damage. Although crackers are prosecuted severely with harsh penalties, cracking continues to be an appealing crime, especially to juveniles.


Sidebar 11-4: Is Cracking a Benign Practice?

Many people argue that cracking is an acceptable practice because lack of protection means that the owners of systems or data do not really value them. Spafford [SPA98] questions this logic by using the analogy of entering a house.


Consider the argument that an intruder who does no harm and makes no changes is simply learning about how computer systems operate. "Most of these people would never think to walk down a street, trying every door to find one unlocked, then search through the drawers or the furniture inside. Yet, these same people seem to give no second thought to making repeated attempts at guessing passwords to accounts they do not own, and once onto a system, browsing through the files on disk." How would you feel if you knew your home had been invaded, even if no harm was done?

Spafford notes that breaking into a house or a computer system constitutes trespassing. To do so in an effort to make security vulnerabilities more visible is "presumptuous and reprehensible." To enter either a home or a computer system in an unauthorized way, even with benign intent, can lead to unintended consequences. "Many systems have been damaged accidentally by ignorant (or careless) intruders."


We do not accept the argument that hackers make good security experts. There are two components to being a good security professional: knowledge and credibility. Diligent explorers, who may experiment with computer breaking in a benign setting like a closed laboratory network, can learn just as much about finding and exploiting vulnerabilities as a hacker. The key differentiator is trust. If you hire a hacker you will always have a nagging fear that your expert is gathering data to attack you or someone else. Comparing two otherwise equal candidates for a position, you choose the one with the lesser risk. To us, the hacker-turned-consultant is seeking to capitalize on a history of unethical behavior. See [PFL06b] for a longer discussion.



Politically Inspired Attacks


Finally, consider Goli's interfering with operation of web sites whose actions she opposes. We have purposely phrased the issue in a situation that arouses perhaps only a few gourmands and p√Ętissiers. We can dismiss the interest of the butter fans as an insignificant minority on an insignificant issue. But you can certainly think of many other issues that have brought on wars. (See Denning's excellent article on cybercriminals [DEN99a] for real examples of politically motivated computer activity.)


The ethical issues abound in this scenario. Some people will see the (butter) issue as one of inherent good, but is butter use one of the fundamental good principles, such as honesty or fairness or not doing harm to others? Is there universal agreement that butter use is good? Probably there will be a division of the world into the butter advocates (x%), the unrestricted pastry advocates (y%), and those who do not take a position (z%). By how much does x have to exceed y for Goli's actions to be acceptable? What if the value of z is large? Greatest good for the greatest number requires a balance among these three percentages and some measure of benefit or harm.


Is butter use so patently good that it justifies harm to those who disagree? Who is helped and who suffers? Is the world helped if only good, but more expensive, pastries are available, so poor people can no longer afford pastry? Suppose we could determine that 99.9 percent of people in the world agreed that butter use was a good thing. Would that preponderance justify overriding the interests of the other 0.1 percent?


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