On Thursday the Department of Justice announced a policy shift in that it will no longer prosecute good-faith security research that would have violated the country’s federal hacking law the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act (CFAA).
The move is significant in that the CFAA has often posed a threat to security researchers who may probe or hack systems in an effort to identify vulnerabilities so they can be fixed. The revision of the policy means that such research should not face charges.
“Computer security research is a key driver of improved cybersecurity,” Deputy Attorney General Lisa O. Monaco said in a statement published with the announcement. “The department has never been interested in prosecuting good-faith computer security research as a crime, and today’s announcement promotes cybersecurity by providing clarity for good-faith security researchers who root out vulnerabilities for the common good.”
The policy itself reads that “the Department’s goals for CFAA enforcement are to promote privacy and cybersecurity by upholding the legal right of individuals, network owners, operators, and other persons to ensure the confidentiality, integrity, and availability of information stored in their information systems.”
For decades experts have criticized the broad nature of the CFAA. The Electronic Frontier Foundation, an activist organization, previously said that “Security research is important to keep all computer users safe. If we do not know about security vulnerabilities, we cannot fix them, and we cannot make better computer systems in the future. The CFAA should protect white-hat hackers and give them incentives to continue their important work.”
Andrew Crocker, a senior staff attorney on the EFF’s civil liberties team told Motherboard in a statement “We're pleased to see the Department of Justice recognize the contribution that security research plays in strengthening the security of the entire Internet, everything from messaging and social media applications to financial systems to critical infrastructure. Too often, the specter of the CFAA—with its ill-defined focus on ‘unauthorized access’—deters researchers from discovering and disclosing vulnerabilities in these systems.”
He said that the new policy does not go far enough. “By exempting research conducted ‘solely’ in ‘good faith,’ the policy calls into question work that serves both security goals and other motives, such as a researcher's desire to be compensated or recognized for their contribution. As an agency policy, it does not bind courts and can be rescinded at any time such as by a future administration. And it does nothing to lessen the risk of frivolous or overbroad CFAA civil litigation against security researchers, journalists, and innovators. The policy is a good start, but it is no substitute for comprehensive CFAA reform.”
The announcement provided an example of the sort of ‘research’ that would be considered bad faith and could still face charges. “Discovering vulnerabilities in devices in order to extort their owners, even if claimed as ‘research,’ is not in good faith,” it reads.
The new policy comes into effect immediately and all federal prosecutors who wish to charge cases under the CFAA are required to follow the policy, the announcement adds.
Updated: This piece has been updated to include a statement from the EFF.