Child abuse suspicion no excuse for hacking, says Sophos poll

February 28, 2007 Sophos Press Release

An online poll* of 233 computer users, undertaken by IT security and control firm Sophos, shows that the majority of people surveyed disagree that it is acceptable to infect and hack into a PC if it is believed it may belong to a child abuser.

The poll followed last week's news that 66-year-old American judge, Ronald C Kline, has been convicted for possessing child pornography on the basis of evidence obtained by a hacker.

The survey reveals that 64 percent of computer users do not believe it is ever right to illegally infect or hack into a PC, even if its owner is suspected to be a child abuser.

"Having a 'hunch' that someone might be involved in child abuse isn't a justifiable reason to infect and hack into their PC - that's what most people we surveyed have told us loud and clear," said Graham Cluley, senior technology consultant for Sophos. "Two wrongs don't make a right, and hackers should not take the law into their own hands. Instead of acting alone, anyone with a strong reason or evidence to suspect someone of illegal activity should notify the authorities immediately and let the investigation run its proper course."

Survey results

Is it okay to illegally infect and hack into a PC if you think it might belong to a child abuser?

Yes, it is okay
36%
No, it is not okay
64%

* Source: Sophos online poll, 233 respondents, February 2007.


In 1999, Canadian hacker Brad Willman planted a Trojan horse, disguised as images of child abuse, on an internet newsgroup visited by pedophiles. The hacker (who used the handle Omni-Potent) broke into the PCs of those he infected, focusing on those he suspected of being involved in child abuse. One of the PCs targeted by Willman belonged to Kline, a former Californian judge.

"Not only is vigilante hacking illegal, it can seriously compromise a police investigation. For instance, suspects could argue that as they have been hacked it could have been the hacker who actually placed the illegal material on their PC," continued Cluley. "Authorities investigating potential suspects may even fall victim to cyberattacks themselves as they download evidence from sites such as the one targeted by Willman."



Many respondents also sent comments to Sophos in reaction to the survey. Here is a small selection:

"I think this is quite straight forward. If there is enough evidence to justify your suspicion in the first place, then there is enough evidence for a warrant to seize the computer. Otherwise we will get to the point where I could be accused of illegal hacking and I reply, but he just looked like a pedophile to me."

"I agree that people need to be caught if they are doing something illegal. But I don't agree with law enforcement or the government having the right to break laws to catch people."

"Although I believe that it is not right for a member of the general public to infect and hack into someone else's computer if it might be used for child abuse (or, indeed, for any other nefarious activities), I do believe that these sorts of tools should be available to the authorities if they have just cause in an ongoing investigation."

"This was a clear case of vigilantism. The suspicion should have been reported to the proper civil authorities who could obtain a warrent to monitor properly. While the crime was reprehensible two wrongs do not make a right but rather often take away a rite. The hacker should be working with the civil authorities to share his expertise in training and legally stopping these crimes. Was anything done to locate these children and the person or person responsible for making these obscene materials?"

"I do not think the question is worded to avoid a skewed response. You are asking a simple question not well worded to answer a complex problem. Is it okay to illegally infect and hack into a PC if you think it might belong to a child abuser? The question implies that you only need to think that the person is a pedophile. This does not consider WHY you think that the person is a pedophile. What would any parent say to this formation of the question? 'Is it OK to use illegal means to protect your own child?'"

"Dangerous to start allowing some people to hack and others to not. At what point do we say you can hack you cannot. Where does it stop. On the other hand those who break the law survive of such arguments and loopholes in the law. In such serious cases as pedophiles then I think we should allow the police to hack our computers as long as they have a search warrant from the judiciary. Personally I have nothing to hide on my PCs so I do not really care if they hack in... as long as there is no malicious intent. How do we control that? Hence there needing to be controls over those who hack."

"It is the rule of law that protects us ultimately, and any end run around the rule of law endangers us more than the spurious protections we believe that we obtain. No! Emphatically no to illegally hacking anyone's computer for any reason, including protection of children, or even national security. We need to answer: do we want to become a police state or an anarchic society of vigilantes?"


Disclaimer: Please bear in mind that this poll is not scientific and is provided for information purposes only. The comments expressed on this page are those of a subsection of poll participants, and not necessarily those of Sophos. Sophos makes no guarantees about the accuracy of the results other than that they reflect the choices of the users who participated. Sophos reserves the right to edit participants' comments for the purposes of clarity, brevity and decency. Sophos reserves the right not to publish the comments of all participants.