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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

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This article is over a month old, voting and posting comments is disabled

By rs2 on 11/21/2012 9:36:41 PM , Rating: 2
This just shows how inadequately our justice system understands and handles technology cases. If I build a webservice that allows unauthenticated clients to pass in a random number and get back an e-mail address and do nothing to limit access to this webservice then a couple of things should be clear:

1. It is not possible for anyone to access my webservice in an "unauthorized" way, because my service has no concept of an "unauthorized" user. All users are authorized. Had the webservice required a password, or at least, a private-key/auth-token, that would be a different story. But that's not what happened.

2. If someone is able to use my unprotected webservice to scrape e-mail addresses, then I am responsible and liable for any identity theft that occurs, not the guy who did the scraping. I'm the one who let the personal information out into the wild by operating a public webservice that serves up e-mail addresses to unauthenticated clients.

The problem is that a major company who should have known better published a webservice with absolutely no security around it, not that someone eventually came along and exploited their lack of security. The ruling in this case is harmful because it does nothing to address the actual problem, and gives companies the idea that it's okay to deploy insecure webservices in the wild because the law will back them up when they inevitable get exploited. They need to secure their webservice, not lock up the guy who pointed out that their webservice had no security.

"A politician stumbles over himself... Then they pick it out. They edit it. He runs the clip, and then he makes a funny face, and the whole audience has a Pavlovian response." -- Joe Scarborough on John Stewart over Jim Cramer

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