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Firesheep not evil, says snooping tool's maker

He blasts Microsoft for tagging packet sniffer as malware

November 2, 2010 04:05 PM ET

Computerworld - 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."



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