Honor Among Thieves And Other Black Hats

By Larry Seltzer  |  Posted 2003-11-06 Print this article Print

Will Microsoft's effort to fund rewards for information on high-profile virus and worm writers make a difference? The virtual wanted poster is a good idea on many levels.

By now its clear to most everyone that law enforcement is ill-equipped to effectively uncover the perpetrators of the widespread viruses and worms. Microsoft is doing something about it, by starting a fund of reward money for information leading to the arrest of such miscreants.

Now, the $5 million fund is not a major investment for Microsoft—if the reward has some positive effect. And its easy to see it having a positive effect, even if it fails to put a deep chill into the community of black-hat malware writers. Still, I dont expect that the reward will prove much of a deterrent because the people who write these things dont consider the potential punishments for the laws theyre breaking. Even if they did, they would think theyll get away with it.

Perhaps if Microsofts reward program was visibly successful by bringing in informants and leading to successful prosecutions, then the deterrent effect could work. Patrick Gray of Internet Security Systems, a twenty-year veteran with the FBI, said that in the world of conventional physical crimes, such rewards work very well.
Informants may be hard to come by, but it may depend on the author and his or her psychology. The Blaster worm, if you recall, was amateurly written, probably by a kid proving his machismo. Its hard to imagine he didnt brag to friends, and one of them might well be tempted by the money. Likewise, authors of more-professionally-written attacks, like Sobig, may be just as vulnerable to being turned in by paid finks. Their safety will be assured only when the number of people who know the authors identity is very small.

Taking a slightly different approach, techno-Law Professor Lawrence Lessig recently proposed bounties for spammers. Heres his specific proposal:
    Imagine a law that had two parts—a labeling part and a bounty part. The first part asserts that any unsolicited commercial e-mail must include in its subject line the tag [ADV:], which is the label. The second, bounty part suggests that the first person to track down a spammer violating the labeling requirement will, upon providing proof to the Federal Trade Commission, be entitled to $10,000 to be paid by the spammer.

This would be impossible to prove without a real-world experiment, but who can doubt that some spammers would be found in such a way. The only real doubt is whether the FTC or civil courts (or perhaps even the mob?) could get the spammers to cough up the $10,000. People who are so craven about violating existing laws as well as other peoples privacy will usually find a way to skip town ahead of their creditors.

This is an advantage for the Microsoft-funded approach. The money would be there, and potential informants would know that it could be collected, probably under well-defined rules. The Lessig proposal envisions the bounty hunter collecting the money from the spammer, but odds are you wont see a single ruble.

Another thing I like about the criminal rewards approach is that it puts these crimes on the same level as other crimes. In my mind, the act of writing and releasing a mass-mailer worm is the moral equivalent of breaking into millions of homes and offices and vandalizing them. The innocuous worms just spray-paint your kitchen, the more malicious ones trash the place. Its morally irrelevant whether its easy to do or if someones products or security practices should have prevented the attack. Strangers shouldnt go around damaging other peoples property, even if that property is just information.

At the same time, the whole situation is depressing: that the wonderful openness and interconnectedness of the Internet has deteriorated to the point where attacks are endemic and bounties raised against the attackers. A kind of a Wild West thing. In the end, the West was tamed, but the Internet may prove a more hostile landscape to the taming influence of law enforcement.

Security Center Editor Larry Seltzer has worked in and written about the computer industry since 1983.

More from Larry Seltzer
Larry Seltzer has been writing software for and English about computers ever since—,much to his own amazement—,he graduated from the University of Pennsylvania in 1983.

He was one of the authors of NPL and NPL-R, fourth-generation languages for microcomputers by the now-defunct DeskTop Software Corporation. (Larry is sad to find absolutely no hits on any of these +products on Google.) His work at Desktop Software included programming the UCSD p-System, a virtual machine-based operating system with portable binaries that pre-dated Java by more than 10 years.

For several years, he wrote corporate software for Mathematica Policy Research (they're still in business!) and Chase Econometrics (not so lucky) before being forcibly thrown into the consulting market. He bummed around the Philadelphia consulting and contract-programming scenes for a year or two before taking a job at NSTL (National Software Testing Labs) developing product tests and managing contract testing for the computer industry, governments and publication.

In 1991 Larry moved to Massachusetts to become Technical Director of PC Week Labs (now eWeek Labs). He moved within Ziff Davis to New York in 1994 to run testing at Windows Sources. In 1995, he became Technical Director for Internet product testing at PC Magazine and stayed there till 1998.

Since then, he has been writing for numerous other publications, including Fortune Small Business, Windows 2000 Magazine (now Windows and .NET Magazine), ZDNet and Sam Whitmore's Media Survey.

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