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America's tweaks to weapons trade pact 'will make web less secure'

Tech giants line up to blast proposed changes to Wassenaar Arrangement

By Iain Thomson, 21 Jul 2015

The period for comments on proposed amendments to the Wassenaar Arrangement – which governs the export of guns, lasers and proper weaponry, and computer hardware and software – ends today. So far, the tweaks concerning IT security products have received an overwhelming thumbs-down from the technology community.

In May the US Bureau of Industry and Security (BIS) suggested altering the Wassenaar Arrangement to include controls on the selling of state-sponsored or commercial surveillance software among the 41 countries that abide by the agreement.

But the amendments were so loosely written that they would also ban the trade in vulnerability exploits, including possibly making bug bounty programs illegal, and criminalizing many of the tools used by legitimate security researchers to test software for flaws.

The BIS called for a 60-day public comment period, which closes today, and the response from both individual researchers and companies in the field has been overwhelmingly negative. On Monday Google went public with its objections, calling the proposed changes "disastrous."

"We believe that these proposed rules, as currently written, would have a significant negative impact on the open security research community," said Neil Martin, export compliance counsel for Google and Tim Willis from the Chrome security team.

"They would also hamper our ability to defend ourselves, our users, and make the web safer. It would be a disastrous outcome if an export regulation intended to make people more secure resulted in billions of users across the globe becoming persistently less secure."

The duo pointed out that the proposed rules were so broadly written that the Chocolate Factory would have to apply for thousands of export licenses just to maintain day-to-day security programs, and fixing problems in software shouldn’t require the permission of a government department.

So far over 100 public comments have been displayed on the BIS comment page. That's not much considering how many companies and individuals are involved, which has surprised some.

But the BIS website may well have many more complaints, as each one must be checked out by bureaucrats before being posted. Even then, there are some big names in the security community whose comments have been added, including Charlie Miller – the ex-NSA expert who's a regular at hacking conferences showing off devious and skillful hacks.

"The proposed rule regarding exploitation licensing would outlaw almost everything I do and have done in my professional career," he commented.

"Attackers will always continue to find new techniques and vulnerabilities, and they are not hindered by laws which limit sharing. Only defenders will be penalized by limiting sharing of technical details of vulnerabilities and techniques. If, as a defender, I do not know what is the state of the art in attacks, I cannot defend against these attacks, or even properly distribute resources to try to defend my enterprise."

Nate Cardozo, staff attorney at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, told The Register that the storm over the proposed changes highlighted the need for a full rethink when the member states who sign up to Wassenaar meet to discuss the changes in December.

"I don’t think anyone thinks this was a well drafted proposed rule, not even BIS at this point," he said. "The BIS has heard the industry loud and clear and will revise the proposed rules." ®

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