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Did Dutch police break the law taking down a botnet?

By Jeremy Kirk
October 26, 2010 02:10 PM ET

IDG News Service - Dutch police took unprecedented action in taking down a botnet on Monday: They uploaded their own program to infected computers around the world, a move that likely violated computer crime laws.

The program causes a computer's Web browser to redirect to a special site set up by the Netherlands Police Agency, where users are informed their computer is infected with Bredolab, a password-stealing malicious software program.

Dutch police did that by taking command of 143 Web servers used to control computers infected with Bredolab. The servers belong to LeaseWeb, one of the top hosting providers in Europe, which was informed in August of the problem by police and other computer security experts, said Alex de Joode, LeaseWeb's security officer.

"For us, it's the first time we've seen something of this magnitude," de Joode said. "It's also the first time the police are trying to actively warn people that their computer is infected."

Botnets are a thorny problem: The complex networks are designed to prevent authorities from easily tracing the perpetrators, and are responsible for the mass distribution of spam and malicious software across the Internet.

Botnets have been attacked by the good guys before, but end users were usually no better off: Their computers may still be infected with other malicious software, and PC owners may never know that their machines need to be scanned with security software. But many computer users are likely turning on their machines today and seeing the Web page from the Dutch police.

Most countries have laws that forbid unauthorized modification of a computer. In the U.K., the regulation is part of the Computer Misuse Act of 1990.

The action by the Dutch police is likely a breach of the Computer Misuse Act, said Struan Robertson, a technology lawyer with Pinsent Masons. Since the territorial scope of the legislation is wide, in theory it could be used against somebody in the Netherlands hacking into a U.K. computer, he said.

"There is no defense in the Computer Misuse Act for unauthorized access to another computer being for noble purposes," Robertson said. "That said, I think it is important to note it is unthinkable that anyone would prosecute for this," Robertson said. "They were making the best of a bad situation."

But in an era where fake Web pages are rampant, it begs the question of whether people will believe that the warning is legitimate. Fraudsters could also simply copy the Web page, set up a new domain and create a site that actually infects people's computers with Bredolab or other malware.

"I think the bigger challenge in this is getting a message to computer users that convinces the users that it comes from an authorized source and that it is really the police who is contacting them," Robertson said.

Reprinted with permission from IDG.net. Story copyright 2014 International Data Group. All rights reserved.
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