Encourage FBI to hoard exploits? No thanks.

A misguided opinion piece in Wired by Matt Blaze and Susan Landau argues that law enforcement should be encouraged to exploit software vulnerabilities to wiretap suspects, instead of requiring a backdoor in communication software. I agree with the latter premise, but the solution Blaze and Landau proposes will result in collateral damage and perverse incentives.

Again, I’m with them this far:

Whether we like them or not, wiretaps — legally authorized ones only, of course — are an important law enforcement tool. But mandatory wiretap backdoors in internet services would invite at least as much new crime as it could help solve.

But then they offer a poor solution:

…there’s already an alternative in place: buggy, vulnerable software. The same vulnerabilities that enable crime in the first place also give law enforcement a way to wiretap — when they have a narrowly targeted warrant and can’t get what they’re after some other way.

Sure, because what could possibly go wrong? Well, let’s see. Authorities could end up creating new forms of malware or remote exploit tools that get co-opted for use by criminals, much as the authors anticipate would happen with mandated backdoors. Attempts to break into or infect a system could lead to unintended damage to innocent systems. The authorities could pressure software vendors not to patch a vulnerability until they finish gathering evidence for a big case. The FBI could outbid a software vendor for information about a new vulnerability, leading to better investigative capabilities at the expense of everyone else’s security.

The authors do attempt to address some of these concerns:

And when the FBI finds a vulnerability in a major piece of software, shouldn’t they let the manufacturer know so innocent users can patch? Should the government buy exploit tools on the underground market or build them themselves? These are difficult questions, but they’re not fundamentally different from those we grapple with for dealing with informants, weapons, and other potentially dangerous law enforcement tools.

These are very difficult questions, and they are fundamentally different from the examples listed. They’re different because of the incentives for law enforcement to interfere with the security of the general public. They’re different because computer and network security are poorly understood by judges and the general public. And they’re different because of the inherent lack of accountability in behavior that takes place online.

But at least targeted exploit tools are harder to abuse on a large scale than globally mandated backdoors in every switch, every router, every application, every device.

Everything’s relative, I suppose, but criminals have shown repeatedly that exploits against specific software vulnerabilities (e.g., in Java or Flash Player) can be used individually or combined with others to wreak havoc on the general Internet using public. What’s good for the goose with a badge is good for the gander with an illicit profit motive.

I’d argue that wiretapping is a technique that was a product of its time: the telephone age. As technology marches on, law enforcement will need to turn to old strategies that still have value (e.g., bugging a person’s home or office) and new ones that have yet to be devised (or disclosed). These may well include certain malicious hacking techniques, but I hope that exploitation of software vulnerabilities by the authorities will not become a mainstream law enforcement strategy.