My name is Matthew Green. I am a professor of computer science and a researcher at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore. I focus on computer security and applied cryptography.
Today I filed a lawsuit against the U.S. government, to strike down Section 1201 of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act. This law violates my First Amendment right to gather information and speak about an urgent matter of public concern: computer security. I am asking a federal judge to strike down key parts of this law so they cannot be enforced against me or anyone else.
A large portion of my work involves building and analyzing the digital security systems that make our modern technological world possible. These include security systems like the ones that protect your phone calls, instant messages, and financial transactions – as well as more important security mechanisms that safeguard property and even human life.
I focus a significant portion of my time on understanding the security systems that have been deployed by industry. In 2005, my team found serious flaws in the automotive anti-theft systems used in millions of Ford, Toyota and Nissan vehicles. More recently, my co-authors and I uncovered flaws in the encryption that powers nearly one third of the world’s websites, including Facebook and the National Security Agency. Along with my students, I’ve identified flaws in Apple’s iMessage text messaging system that could have allowed an eavesdropper to intercept your communications. And these are just a sampling of the public research projects I’ve been involved with.
I don’t do this work because I want to be difficult. Like most security researchers, the research I do is undertaken in good faith. When I find a flaw in a security system, my first step is to call the organization responsible. Then I help to get the flaw fixed. Such independent security research is an increasingly precious commodity. For every security researcher who investigates systems in order to fix them, there are several who do the opposite – and seek to profit from the insecurity of the computer systems our society depends on.
There’s a saying that no good deed goes unpunished. The person who said this should have been a security researcher. Instead of welcoming vulnerability reports, companiesroutinely threaten good-faith security researchers with civil action, or even criminal prosecution. Companies use the courts to silence researchers who have embarrassing things to say about their products, or who uncover too many of those products’ internal details. These attempts are all too often successful, in part because very few security researchers can afford a prolonged legal battle with well-funded corporate legal team.
This might just be a sad story about security researchers, except for the fact that these vulnerabilities affect everyone. When security researchers are intimidated, it’s the public that pays the price. This is because real criminals don’t care about lawsuits and intimidation – and they certainly won’t bother to notify the manufacturer. If good-faith researchers aren’t allowed to find and close these holes, then someone else will find them, walk through them, and abuse them.
In the United States, one of the most significant laws that blocks security researchers is Section 1201 of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA). This 1998 copyright law instituted a raft of restrictions aimed at preventing the “circumvention of copyright protection systems.” Section 1201 provides both criminal and civil penalties for people who bypass technological measures protecting a copyrighted work. While that description might bring to mind the copy protection systems that protect a DVD or an iTunes song, the law has also been applied to prevent users from reverse-engineering software to figure out how it works. Such reverse-engineering is a necessary party of effective security research.
Section 1201 poses a major challenge for me as a security researcher. Nearly every attempt to analyze a software-based system presents a danger of running afoul of the law. As a result, the first step in any research project that involves a commercial system is never science – it’s to call a lawyer; to ask my graduate students to sign a legal retainer; and to inform them that even with the best legal advice, they still face the possibility of being sued and losing everything they have. This fear chills critical security research.
Section 1201 also affects the way that my research is conducted. In a recent project – conducted in Fall 2015 – we were forced to avoid reverse-engineering a piece of software when it would have been the fastest and most accurate way to answer a research question. Instead, we decided to treat the system as a black box, recovering its operation only by observing inputs and outputs. This approach often leads to a less perfect understanding of the system, which can greatly diminish the quality of security research. It also substantially increases the time and effort required to finish a project, which reduces the quantity of security research.
Finally, I have been luckier than most security researchers in that I have access to legal assistance from organizations such as the Electronic Frontier Foundation. Not every security researcher can benefit from this.
The risk imposed by Section 1201 and the heavy cost of steering clear of it discourage me – and other researchers — from pursuing any project that does not appear to have an overwhelming probability of success. This means many projects that would yield important research and protect the public simply do not happen.
In 2015, I filed a request with the Library of Congress for a special exemption that would have exempted good faith security researchers from the limitations of Section 1201. Representatives of the major automobile manufacturers and the Business Software Alliance (a software industry trade group) vigorously opposed the request. This indicates to me that even reasonable good faith security testing is still a risky proposition.
This risk is particularly acute given that the exemption we eventually won was much more limited than what we asked for, and leaves out many of the technologies with the greatest impact on public health, privacy, and the security of financial transactions.
Section 1201 has prevented crucial security research for far too long. That’s why I’m seeking a court order that would strike Section 1201 from the books as a violation of the First Amendment.