Security researcher Patrick Webster was not the first Australian to be hit with legal threats for unauthorised but ethical disclosure, industry experts say.
As many as a dozen or more researchers have been embroiled in legal tussels for conducting unathorised vulnerability tests on businesses over the last three years, according to sources familiar with the cases.
Last week, Webster became the most recent to land in hot water after he disclosed in September a direct object reference vulnerability to Pillar, the fund administrator of First State Superannuation of which he was a customer.
The common flaw existed in a URL he was sent that linked to his superannuation statement. By altering a digit, he was able to access other customer accounts.
He ran a script to download some 500 accounts and supplied the information to the then allegedly grateful company.
But three weeks later, the company informed police that Webster may have breached the NSW Crimes Act and issued a legal threat (pdf) demanding he allow its technical staff to examine his computer.
They had also threatened to force Webster to pay for costs arising from the disclosure.
A Sydney security professional who could not be named for legal reasons said he was involved in about a dozen similar cases in the last three years.
“It unfortunately seems like the way things are going now,” he said.
NSW Police refused to comment on specific investigations, and all finalised cases were wrapped in non-disclosure agreements, the source said.
He said half of the cases involved penetration testers and professional security researchers.
Many of these involved the disclosure of basic website and application vulnerabilities including similar direct object bugs found by Webster, through which sensitive data could be accessed without hacking per se.
They were also ethically disclosed, meaning the affected company was quietly informed so the holes could be corrected with minimum risk to users.
But in each case, the affected companies hit researchers with legal threats.
While some researchers were later relieved of legal threats and even paid for the disclosures, some in NSW and Victoria were facing potential criminal prosecution.
Director of penetration testing company Securus Global, Drazen Drazic, suspected the number of researchers involved could be higher.
“Unauthorised disclosure is common, it is part of the security industry,” Drazic said. “These guys have almost a sixth sense for spotting bugs. It is like a mechanic who hears a rattle in a car and knows the problem.”
Speaking of Webster’s legal tussle, arbitrator and former president of the Australian Computer Society, Phillip Argy, said courts would examine intent behind disclosure.
“There may be no question on whether laws were broken, but it is a question of what he did that the court will consider,” Argy said.
First State Superannuation chief executive Michael Dwyer AM told Risky Business that the legal threat was part of the company’s risk management policy,
Argy said a court would differentiate between unauthorised access for malicious and benevolent purposes.
“Assuming it can be proven.”
But that uncertainty was too great a risk for independent researchers to accept, Drazic said.
Professional penetration testers often find vulnerabilities in software and web sites owned by businesses that were not customers.
If they were notified, penetration testing firms could be accused of drumming up business.
“Every scenario is different,” Drazic said. “We try to find a trusted source in the company to inform.”
“Unless you have business doing the tests, and I believe Patrick did, you really can’t risk it.”