New Bill in Georgia Could Criminalize Security Research

A new bill passed by the Georgia State Senate last week deems all forms of unauthorized computer access as illegal, thus potentially criminalizing the finding and reporting of security vulnerabilities.

The new bill, which met fierce opposition from the cybersecurity community ever since it first became public, amends the Georgia code that originally considered only unauthorized computer access with malicious intent to be a crime.

“Any person who intentionally accesses a computer or computer network with knowledge that such access is without authority shall be guilty of the crime of unauthorized computer access,” the bill reads (Senate Bill 315).

“Any person convicted of computer password disclosure or unauthorized computer access shall be fined not more than $5,000.00 or incarcerated for a period not to exceed one year, or both punished for a misdemeanor of a high and aggravated nature,” the bill continues.

The original code only made a crime out of the access of a computer or computer network without authority and with the intention of tampering with applications or data; interfering with the use of a computer program or data; or causing the malfunction of the computer, network, or application.

The main issue with the bill is that it does little to protect security researchers who find and responsibly disclose vulnerabilities.

In fact, it is possible that the new bill was created because a security researcher discovered a vulnerability in the Kennesaw State University election systems last year. The flaw was reported ethically and the researcher came clean after being investigated by the FBI.

However, the breach made it to the news and, because the state felt very embarrassed by the incident, the attorney general’s office apparently asked for law that would criminalize so-called “poking around.”

“Basically, if you’re looking for vulnerabilities in a non-destructive way, even if you’re ethically reporting them—especially if you’re ethically reporting them—suddenly you’re a criminal if this bill passes into law,” Scott M. Jones from Electronic Frontiers Georgia pointed out.

The Electronic Frontier Foundation has already called upon Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal to veto the bill as soon as possible. The foundation also points out that S.B. 315 doesn’t ensure that security researchers aren’t targeted by overzealous prosecutors for finding vulnerabilities in networks or computer programs.

EFF also points out that, while Georgia has been a hub for cybersecurity research until now, that it all might change with the adoption of the new bill. Cyber-security firms and other tech companies might no longer find Georgia welcoming and could consider relocating to states that are less hostile to security research.

“S.B. 315 is a dangerous bill with ramifications far beyond what the legislature imagined, including discouraging researchers from coming forward with vulnerabilities they discover in critical systems. It’s time for Governor Deal to step in and listen to the cybersecurity experts who keep our data safe, rather than lawmakers looking to score political points,” EFF notes.

The infosec community has already reacted to the passing of the bill, calling for a veto and pointing out not only that search engines such as Shodan could become illegal in Georgia, but also that security talent is highly likely to migrate to other states.

Others, however, suggest that some researchers could turn to “irresponsible disclosure” instead.

Related: Georgia Tech’s $17 Million Rhamnousia Project and the Difficulty of Attribution

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Ionut Arghire is an international correspondent for SecurityWeek.

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