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Irreverent cyber "troll" may face hard prison time for his actions, continues to fight for his innocence

A New York security "researcher" faces the prospect of spending five years behind bars and being forced to pay up to $250,000, after a federal jury of his peers found him guilty of cybercrimes involving his 2010 exploitation a flaw in the security of iPad service provider AT&T. He allegedly used the flaw to expose the email address of over 100,000 individuals.

I. A Leaky Hole

The story began in June 2010.  Apple, Inc. (AAPL) had just released the first generation iPad, a tablet computer that transformed the form factor from overlooked to in vogue.  And the service provider du jour for iPads with 3G data connectivity was AT&T, Inc. (T).  

But AT&T's iPad support services had a relatively minor, but notable security flaw.  AT&T's iPad-related servers ran a script that accepted an ICC-ID (integrated circuit card identifiers), an identifier unique to each device.  

If sent a valid ICC-ID, the script served up the personal email of the subscriber associated with that device.  AT&T had planned to use the feature to generate a slick AJAX-style response on its web applications for the iPad.

iPad hole
AT&T left a gaping hole in their iPad web scripts. [Image Source: DailyTech/Jason Mick]

But Andrew Auernheimer, Daniel Spitler, and other hackers with the profanely named "troll" hacker collective Goatse Security identified the vulnerability when they were probing AT&T's servers.  They quickly wrote a so-called "data slurper" -- a script that performed a brute force attack, working through tables of ICC-IDs and recording the ones that received a response.

AT&T apologized for the breach and took down the script, closing its hole.

II. Investigation, Trial Conclude in Guilty Verdict

But the damage was already done.  Goatse Sec. had published its results to the blog site Gawker, revealing parts of a data set that contained roughly 114,000 email addresses.  Among the high profile figures exposed were ABC News anchor Diane Sawyer, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, and current Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel.

Soon after the data loss U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation agents, investigating the incident, conducted a raid on the home Mr. Auernheimer who had moved from New York to a residence in Arkansas.  Mr. Auernheimer, aka "weev" or "Escher Auernheimer" was arrested by federal agents on suspicion of computer crimes.  Authorities also allegedly found cocaine, LSD, and ecstasy in his residence.  Lawyers for Mr. Auernheimer contend that the raid was unnecessary and illegal.  The security "researcher" has yet to face charges on the drugs found.

However, he was charged with one count of conspiracy to access servers without permission and one count of identity theft.  These offenses -- spelled out in the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act of 1986 (18 USC § 1030) -- carry a maximum sentence of five years in prison and a fine of up to $250,000 USD.

Andrew Auernheimer
Goatse Security "researcher" Andrew Auernheimer was found guilty of two counts of computer crimes and may be sentenced to up to five years in prison, pending appeal. [Image Source: AP]

Mr. Auernheimer was charged in U.S. District Court for the District of New Jersey, the location where his co-defendant (Daniel Spitler) was charged.  Initially, federal authorities had planned to charge the two members separately, which would have resulted in a trial of Mr. Auernheimer in an Arkansas District Court.  However, the case was eventually shuffled to the New Jersey District Court.

In June 2011, Mr. Spitler, aka "JacksonBrown" pled guilty to the two cybercrimes counts, in hopes of receiving a lighter sentence.  He is currently awaiting sentencing.

Mr. Auernheimer has fought the charges, and the trial concluded this week with the jury finding Mr. Auernheimer guilty of both counts.

III. Appeal is Pending

The hacker's attorney, Tor Ekeland, disputes the verdict, arguing that the jury and judge misinterpreted the cybercrimes statute and the nature of Mr. Auernehimer's data grab.  The hacker is currently free on bail.  His attorney is appealing the case to the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Philadelphia.

Andrew Auernheimer
Mr. Auernheimer's attorney argues the guilty verdict is the result of technical ignorance on behalf of the jury. [Image Source: Steffie Keith/Flickr]

A Goatse Sec. spokesperson in a previous interview with DailyTech defended the disclosure and data grab, emphasizing that Goatse Sec. researchers did not try to profit off the emails they grabbed.  The spokesperson writes:

While plenty of jokes about selling the list to Chinese spammers or using it to screw with the stock market circulated #gnaa, the truth of the matter is that disclosing this vulnerability let customers know how their data was being mishandled. As it was widely reported, the data was only released to Gawker to provide proof of the vulnerability. Considering the circumstances, it was the most ethical thing they could do.

The spokesperson, like Mr. Auernheimer's attorney, chalks the possibility of a conviction up to technical ignorance on behalf of the jury, remarking:

As for the "hacking" itself, describing the activities of GoatSec as "hacking" or "unauthorized entry" is a gross overstatement and dramatization. If you examine what actually took place, it was simply enumerating account IDs by using the API exactly as it was designed. There was no authentication to bypass, no warnings about prohibiting access or anything else of the sort. The only hope the DOJ has of prosecuting them is based on the likely technical ignorance of the jury, sad to say.

You can read my full interview with the Goatse Sec. spokesperson here.

Sources: FBI, Reuters

Comments     Threshold

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RE: This is crap...
By kleinma on 11/21/2012 5:20:17 PM , Rating: 3
Jason, do you really think someone writing a script to pound AT&Ts servers trying every combo of device ID to get a response back and compile a list of email addresses of iPad owners was thought to be a totally innocent action, and that the person conducting the operation had no concept or thought that what they were doing was not the "right thing"?

I guess maybe you are just trying to be diplomatic here, and I am not for throwing the guy in jail (perhaps he would be better off getting a job working in IT security), but lets at least admit what is reality here: He did something he wasn't supposed to, and he knew full well he wasn't supposed to be doing it. No one needs to read his mind to know that.

RE: This is crap...
By blue_urban_sky on 11/21/2012 7:16:45 PM , Rating: 2
I wonder if you are a programmer? If I found this I would rap it in a loop (brute force) to see the extent of the problem.

Take these 2 made up headlines

Hacker steals 100,000 email addresses of iPad users.

Bloke says you can get an email address from a web service if you supply an iPad device id!!!1!

One closes a flaw in security the other makes your mother call you a 'clever' boy to her friends.

Sadly this also got the guy arrested for shaming a company.

RE: This is crap...
By rs2 on 11/21/2012 10:50:40 PM , Rating: 2
Um, no. If someone writes a webservice that takes a number and returns an e-mail address, deploys it publicly, and takes no steps to restrict access to it, then that person has done a very stupid thing. And when you notice a person who has done a very stupid thing, the responsible thing to do is to publicly call them out on it so that they fix the problem, quickly.

Otherwise you have a security leak that just sits there, and everyone knows that it's broken, and the truly nefarious people quietly mine data from the broken system and sell it to spammers in the background. And the stupid person who operates it does nothing because they're either too stupid to realize how poorly they've implemented their system, or too indifferent to care.

The only entity who has done anything wrong in this case is AT&T, for deploying that sorry excuse of a webservice in the first place. There are simple ways to secure these kinds of things, they employed none of them, and they should have known better. They should be the ones on trial, not the guy who pointed out how royally they screwed up.

RE: This is crap...
By Solandri on 11/22/2012 5:40:30 AM , Rating: 3
The only entity who has done anything wrong in this case is AT&T, for deploying that sorry excuse of a webservice in the first place.

If you leave your car door unlocked with the keys in the ignition, and the car gets stolen, then yeah it's your fault. But that doesn't mean the thief didn't commit a crime.

RE: This is crap...
By rs2 on 11/22/2012 6:22:42 AM , Rating: 3
If you leave your car door unlocked with the keys in the ignition, and the car gets stolen, then yeah it's your fault. But that doesn't mean the thief didn't commit a crime.

I agree with you 100% there. However that analogy is not directly applicable to this case. Where do you see a crime having been committed? AT&T created a service that spits out email addresses for free. They did nothing to prevent arbitrary people from accessing it. No property was stolen, and nobody was deprived access to any tangible item or intangible service.

There was no crime committed. No theft, no trespass, nothing. Unless finding strangers' email addresses is a crime now. Is it?

RE: This is crap...
By drlumen on 11/23/2012 11:42:21 AM , Rating: 1
I haven't done much research on this but if it was easy as parsing a URL then I don't see any crime there. If there was no security around the AT&T site and it was publicly accessible then that is AT&T's fault regardless of how much it was used by one person. I see any URL as a publicly available internet location. If it is/was a 'secure' site then they would not have been able to get the data as was described.

You liken it to car theft but there was nothing of real intrinsic value that was taken. I liken it more to putting a bowl of candy out on Halloween (without as much as a sign requesting to only take 1). Then getting pissed off that some one or group cleaned out the bowl. Yes, it was a dick move for them to take it and publish it but it was data that was made public by AT&T regardless of the form or function.

"Nowadays, security guys break the Mac every single day. Every single day, they come out with a total exploit, your machine can be taken over totally. I dare anybody to do that once a month on the Windows machine." -- Bill Gates

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