Should owners of intellectual property be allowed to attack anyone they suspect of pirating their goodies? That’s a question that was raised last week by the Commission on the Theft of American Intellectual Property.
While the commission’s observation’s about IP thieving by China grabbed most of the headlines when it released its 90-page report last week, buried in the document was a disturbing analysis of the merits of offensive cyber operations by rights holders that, if given legal life, could do some serious harm to the digital lives of many consumers.
The commission—made up of former U.S. government officials and military men—is interested in protecting corporate and government networks from IP thieves, but some of their action points, if they became legal, could easily be used by groups like the RIAA and MPAA to bully consumers.
A slippery, dangerous slope
At issue is something in cyber security circles known as “active network defense,” which has more to do with offense than defense.
“When theft of valuable information, including intellectual property, occurs at network speed, sometimes merely containing a situation until law enforcement can become involved is not an entirely satisfactory course of action,” the commission report [PDF] noted.
“While not currently permitted under U.S. law,” the report continued, “there are increasing calls for creating a more permissive environment for active network defense that allows companies not only to stabilize a situation but to take further steps, including actively retrieving stolen information, altering it within the intruder’s networks, or even destroying the information within an unauthorized network.”
One example given is writing software designed to lock down the computer if run by unauthorized users. If you want to access your computer again, you’d have to call the cops for an unlock code. Legalized ransomware, in other words.
No doubt, some rights holders would salivate at the thought of launching cyber attacks on outfits they say are online paradises for IP thieves and their clientele.
If counterattacks against hackers were legal, the commission said, there are many techniques that companies could employ that would cause severe damage to the capability of those conducting IP theft.
“These attacks would raise the cost to IP thieves of their actions, potentially deterring them from undertaking these activities in the first place,” it maintained.
Keep in mind, if you have some pirated movies or songs on your computer, you could be deemed an IP thief and have nasty things done to your system by rights holders if counterattacks were legalized.
Slow your roll
Nevertheless, the commission pulled up short of putting its stamp of approval on online vigilantism.
“The Commission is not ready to endorse this recommendation because of the larger questions of collateral damage caused by computer attacks, the dangers of misuse of legal hacking authorities, and the potential for nondestructive countermeasures such as beaconing, tagging, and self-destructing that are currently in development to stymie hackers without the potential for destructive collateral damage,” it said.
The panel didn’t entirely shut the door on the issue, though.
“[C]urrent law and law-enforcement procedures simply have not kept pace with the technology of hacking and the speed of the Internet,” the commission said. “Almost all the advantages are on the side of the hacker; the current situation is not sustainable.”
John Mello writes on technology and cyber security for a number of online publications and is former managing editor of the Boston Business Journal and Boston Phoenix. Disclosure: He also writes for Hewlett-Packad's marketing website TechBeacon.