Firesheep not evil, says snooping tool's maker

He blasts Microsoft for tagging packet sniffer as malware

The security researcher who created the Firesheep snooping tool defended his work today, saying it's no one's business what software people run on their computers.

He also criticized Microsoft for adding detection of Firesheep to its antivirus software, calling the Redmond, Wash. company's move "censorship."

Eric Butler, the Seattle-based Web applications developer who released Firesheep more than a week ago, took to his blog Tuesday to counter claims that the tool, or more precisely, using the tool, is unethical and perhaps illegal.

Firesheep, which was released Oct. 24 and has been downloaded nearly 550,000 times since, is an add-on to Mozilla's Firefox browser that identifies users on an open network -- such as a coffee shop's public Wi-Fi hot spot -- who are visiting an unsecured Web site. A double-click in Firesheep gives its handler instant access to the accounts of others accessing Twitter and Facebook, among numerous other popular Web destinations.

Legal experts have split over Firesheep legality, with some believing using it to hijack accounts violates U.S. federal wiretapping laws while others see it differently. All agreed that the law is "unsettled" before the courts.

Others have said there is virtually no chance that Butler would face charges for distributing Firesheep, since creating tools like it are not illegal.

Butler said essentially the same thing today, although in much stronger language. "It is nobody's business telling you what software you can or cannot run on your own computer," he said, noting that Firesheep can be used for legitimate purposes, including security testing.

"A much more appropriate question is: 'Is it legal to access someone else's accounts without their permission?'" he wrote.

Butler again argued that he built Firesheep to raise awareness about sites that don't encrypt all traffic between users and Web services. "As I've said before, I reject the notion that something like Firesheep turns otherwise innocent people evil," said Butler.

In the eyes of the law, Butler's rationale is misplaced, said Joe DeMarco, a former Assistant U.S. Attorney and now a partner with the New York City-based law firm DeVore & DeMarco LLP. "Motive, as distinct from intent, generally is not an element of federal crimes, including federal computer crimes," said DeMarco.

"You can't rob a bank, give [the money] to the starving, and then claim you are not guilty of robbery," he said. "By the same token, you can't help others commit cybercrimes and escape liability. If you make software which enables unauthorized access to other people's accounts with the intention of facilitating that crime, you may very well be liable for violating the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act under established principles of aiding and abetting and conspiratorial liability."

Motive does, however, come into play when it comes to what DeMarco called "prosecutorial discretion."

By the latter, DeMarco meant that prosecutors may not chose to go after Butler, or the maker of any other hacking tool, simply for engaging in that activity even where they believe that a crime was committed. They haven't so far.

"I'm not aware of any federal prosecution for the mere creation of software that enables you to log on to other people's accounts," DeMarco aid. "There's almost always something else at play."

Butler also took Microsoft to task for adding Firesheep detection to its antivirus software, including Security Essentials, the free-of-charge consumer software, and its various enterprise-grade security programs.

Butler argued that Microsoft is violating users' trust by detecting Firesheep as malware.

"By installing antivirus, you grant a third party the ability to remove files from your system trusting that only malicious code will be targeted," he said. "Microsoft and other antivirus vendors abuse this trust and assert what they think you should or should not be doing with your computer." Butler also blasted Apple's App Store as another example of what he called "censorship."

"Code is a form of speech, and the freedom of speech must remain protected," Butler asserted. "If Microsoft wants to improve security with censorship, it would be more appropriate to block the insecure Web sites that are exposing user information in the first place."

Microsoft's Firesheep detection listing is extremely terse, and includes no technical information or details on what its security software does when it sniffs out the packet sniffer.

But Jeff Williams, a principal group program manager with the Microsoft malware center, filled in some of the blanks.

"Microsoft's anti-malware packages assign an alert level of 'Medium' to hacker tools such as Firesheep," Williams said in an e-mail reply to questions. "[That] rating applies to programs that might affect your privacy or make changes to your computer that could negatively impact your computing experience, for example, by collecting personal information or changing settings.

Medium-rated threats aren't scrubbed from a PC, Williams added, but are instead quarantined. Users are then asked whether they want to delete or retain the file. "Nearly half of our customers are choosing to remove [Firesheep]," said Williams.

As for Butler's assertion that software code is analogous to free speech, some of the people who added comments to his blog agreed, others did not.

"What Eric [Butler] has done is publicly expose and drive awareness to an important security flaw that many large Web sites have knowingly ignored for years," said someone identified as "swindsor" in a comment posted Tuesday.

"Sometimes it is the government's business what software you run on your computer, if the sole purpose for something happens to be illegal, then it's a valid point to say that the software itself should be illegal," countered "instrum3nt."

Butler and his colleague, Ian Gallagher -- the two led a Firesheep presentation at the ToorCon security conference on Oct. 24 -- have declined Computerworld's requests for interviews in the past. Instead, Gallagher said in an e-mail last week, the pair plan to use Butler's blog to answer media inquiries.

Butler did not responded to another request for additional comment today.

Gregg Keizer covers Microsoft, security issues, Apple, Web browsers and general technology breaking news for Computerworld. Follow Gregg on Twitter at @gkeizer or subscribe to Gregg's RSS feed . His e-mail address is gkeizer@computerworld.com.

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