Industry balks at FBI plans for a back door

William Jackson

The FBI has a tough selling job ahead if it expects the security software industry to stand still for a covertly distributed program that would monitor criminal suspects' computer use.

'Malicious code is malicious code,' said Graham Cluley, senior technology consultant for Sophos Anti-Virus Inc. of Wakefield, Mass. He said Sophos has assured customers it would not leave any holes in its software for such an FBI program. Other leading antivirus vendors also are saying that their customers rate higher than the FBI.

The FBI isn't talking about the program, dubbed Magic Lantern and rumored to be a remote keystroke-monitoring program that could be distributed over the Internet. The Trojan back door could replace current tools that must be physically installed on a suspect's computer to monitor keystrokes.

That is exactly the kind of thing antivirus programs identify and block, so it's difficult to see how it could succeed without antivirus vendors' cooperation.

And the antivirus industry has serious concerns. Like many hacker tools already in the public domain, Magic Lantern could be a tool for the bad guys as well as the good guys.

Cluley said that if Sophos finds such a Trojan horse, 'We're going to provide protection against it. We have no way of knowing if it was written by the FBI, and even if we did, we wouldn't know whether it was being used by the 'FBI or commandeered by a third party.'

The third-party aspect also worries Sandra England, executive vice president for business development and strategic research at Network Associates Inc. of Santa Clara, Calif., which sells McAfee antivirus software. 'I don't think there has been enough debate to know what the potential ramifications are,' England said.

Although it has been reported that her company would accommodate Magic Lantern, England said there have been no discussions with the FBI.

John W. Thompson, president and chief executive officer of Symantec Corp. of Cupertino, Calif., said the FBI has not contacted his company.

'Our priority is to protect the interests of the shareholders of the company,' Thompson said. Symantec as a U.S. corporate citizen would do what it can to protect national interests, but 'without compromising the interests of customers and shareholders.'

About the Author

William Jackson is a Maryland-based freelance writer.

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