UK eyes special license for infosec researchers hampered by export controls

The UK government wants to find out if security researchers have faced an “unnecessary burden” from Europe’s relatively new controls on intrusion software and is considering special licensing arrangements if it finds they are.

In recent weeks Cisco and Google have joined a growing chorus of US security researchers voicing opposition to a plan in the US to regulate the export of so-called “intrusion software” — software that is designed to evade detection or defeat countermeasures. They’ve said it could stifle research into security that will ultimately make end users less safe, despite the law’s good intentions.

The proposal stems from a 2013 update to the dual-use technologies component of the Wassenaar Arrangement, which added intrusion software in response to concerns it could be used to violate human rights. The 41 participating nations, including the US, the EU and Australia, agree to implement the definitions in local legislation.

Europe implemented its legislation in December 2014, which meant that EU-based researchers who planned to participate in hacking contests like HP’s Pwn2Own needed an export license.

Despite a quieter reaction in Europe over its controls, the UK’s Export Control Office (ECO) on Monday published a document to clear up confusion about the rules and provide a number of practical examples to illustrate what’s in scope of the controls on intrusion software.

The ECO also said it would consider “special licensing arrangements” if it found security researchers faced an “unnecessary burden” under the restrictions.

“The ECO would welcome comments on the impact of these controls, especially in relation to security research,” the office said.

The update from the ECO touched on some of the issues raised by Google in its recent submission to the US Commerce Department. The search company said it could hamper its cross-border security efforts, including its various bug bounty programs which rely on researchers based outside the US. It also said it could require tens of thousands of licenses due to it needing to share software bugs across its international operations.

For UK researchers who participate in bug bounties operated outside of the EU, the ECO said it all depends on whether the program’s requires a researcher to just describe a provide a proof of concept; alone neither qualify, but together they might.

“If the terms of payment require a description of how such a proof of concept works then that description could well meet the technology control if the proof of concept met the definition of "intrusion software”,” the ECO notes.

Similarly, it makes a distinction between the type of bug reports researchers submit to vendors: “A bug report that describes a defeat for 'protective countermeasures' and a modification to the standard execution path of a program would be controlled as "technology" if it allowed the execution of external instructions. If instead the only outcome described was to launch a calculator process then this is unlikely to be controlled.”

Additionally, multinationals whose day to day business involves transferring items that qualify as intrusion software tools will require a licence.

ECO noted that the export controls apply to items “like malware command and control servers, the tools to build malware, and software to use or serve exploits, rather than the actual malware binaries or exploits”. In other words, the intrusion software itself is not controlled.

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It also clarified that intrusion software means it has to be “specially designed” to avoid detection by monitoring tools or defeat protective countermeasures as well as extract data.

“Merely avoiding detection is not the same as being specially designed to avoid detection. It is quite possible for a software program to be unnoticed or unnoticeable by a given monitoring tool without that having been a design criterion,” the ECO said.

Some products, such as a commercial malware toolkit for law enforcement as well as training course materials, would likely meet the criterion. Meanwhile, open source penetration testing software, since it’s in the public domain, would not be controlled as intrusion software.

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Tags malwareGoogleciscopwn2ownUKUK governmentUS Commerce Departmentsecurity researchersCSO AustraliaWassenaar Arrangementinfosec researchersexport controls

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