Use a honeypot, go to prison?

Thursday, 17 April 2003, 11:45 AM EST

Using a honeypot to detect and surveil computer intruders might put you on the working end of federal wiretapping beef, or even get you sued by the next hacker that sticks his nose in the trap, a Justice Department attorney warned Wednesday.

"There are some legal issues here, and they are not necessarily trivial, and they're not necessarily easy," said Richard Salgado, senior counsel for the Department of Justice's computer crime unit, speaking at the RSA Conference here Wednesday.

An increasingly popular technique for detecting would-be intruders, a honeypot is a type of hacker flypaper: a system that sits on an organization's network for no other purpose than to be hacked, in theory diverting attackers away from genuinely valuable targets and putting them in an closely monitored environment where every keystroke can be analyzed.

But that monitoring is what federal criminal law calls "interception of communications," said Salgado, a felony that carries up to five years in prison. Fortunately for honeypot operators, there are exemptions to the Federal Wiretap Act that could be applied to some honeypot configurations, but they still leave many hacker traps in a legal danger zone.

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