Courting hackers

At the Black Hat conference last week, the FBI offered a truce to hackers. Actually, it was more than that. Daniel Larkin, who heads up the FBI's Internet crime unit, came right out and asked for help from a group of people that the G-men have often been chasing over the past two decades. Larkin pointed out that hackers -- er, security researchers -- often dig up crucial cybersecurity information before law enforcement people do. And now that the FBI is working with software vendors, big online businesses and academic institutions, hackers are the next logical group for the bureau to join forces with.

What's wrong with this let's-all-ride-off-together picture?

Well, for one thing, there's Steven Rambam.

Just 11 days before Larkin's pitch for FBI/hacker cooperation, four FBI agents walked up to Rambam at the Hackers on Planet Earth conference in New York. Rambam was about to give a two-hour presentation on collecting personal information online. Instead, he was arrested and charged with witness tampering, obstruction of justice and impersonating an FBI agent.

Arresting a hacker at a hacker conference just before he's about to give a big talk on hacking is not the optimal way to win the affections and cooperation of hackers.

While some hackers run professional IT security businesses these days, it wasn't that long ago that many of them were pranksters or punks, poking around corporate firewalls and looking for ways in.

And though they've now gone legit, many of these security researchers are still infuriatingly independent troublemakers who don't care much for anyone's rules.

Could FBI investigations be put at risk because would-be junior G-men forget whose game they're playing and ignore the rules they have to play by? Maybe. Will bringing hackers into the FBI's efforts blur lines and make some things much messier? Probably. Will some of those hackers end up with arrest warrants one of these days? Perhaps.

Still, the risk is worth taking. Cybercrime is huge, well organized and growing. The threat is real. We're all at risk. The FBI needs all the help it can get.

But if the FBI's Larkin believes working with the Black Hat crowd is going to be anything like linking up with Microsoft and eBay and CERT, he's likely to be in for one very wild ride.

Ironic, isn't it?

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