Looks like you don't actually have to hack anything to get arrested these days. Let me know what you think about this story...

A raid on the alleged author of a well-known hacker toolkit is raising eyebrows among electronic civil libertarians, and putting security researchers on guard.

It could almost pass as a routine computer crime case -- a year-long probe leads Scotland Yard cybercops to a home in the upscale London suburb of Surbiton, where they seize computer equipment and arrest a 21-year-old man under the UK's 1990 Computer Misuse Act.

But last Thursday's raid was anything but routine, because the unnamed suspect, who has not yet been formally charged, isn't accused of cracking computers, launching a denial of service attack or distributing a virus. Instead, the joint Scotland Yard/FBI investigation is focused on his alleged authorship of the "T0rnkit," a collection of custom programs that help an intruder hide their presence on a hacked Linux machine. It's apparently the first time the UK's national computer crime law has been used to crack down on a programmer for writing a tool with malicious applications -- and it's a chilling development to some security researchers and electronic civil libertarians.

"I would definitely see it as troublesome," says Lee Tien, senior staff attorney at the Electronic Frontier Foundation. "It's something we have to look at very closely, because the general idea that you can go after someone criminally for simply writing a program raises issues."

'The writing and distribution of the tool is the offense.'
-- Scotland Yard

T0rnkit first began showing up on hacked boxes two years ago. Like other so-called "rootkits," it includes programs that an intruder can drop into place over genuine system commands that render the attacker invisible to the computer's administrator. A replacement "ps" command, for example, will omit the hacker's network sniffer from a list of processes running on the machine, where an unadulterated version of the command would finger the intruder.

The package also includes a backdoor function that allows the attacker to covertly return to a machine that they've hacked. "The more recent ones have had loadable kernel modules, distributed denial of service tools, and stuff like that," says Dave Dittrich, senior security engineer at the University of Washington. "Most of the versions are circulated in the underground, and they're tightly held."

In 2001, Chinese virus writers incorporated a modified T0rnkit into the nasty "Lion" worm. But the kit itself is not a virus; it can't spread on its own accord. And the man arrested last week -- now free pending an October 19th court appearance -- is not accused of breaking into any computers, or of falling in with Chinese cybergangs. "The writing and distribution of the tool is the offense," a Scotland Yard spokesman confirmed in a telephone interview Monday.

And that worries some computer security researchers, who find it all to easy to visualize themselves in the position of the anonymous UK suspect. So-called "white hat" hackers often create programs with potentially malicious applications as an exercise, or to advance the published research base -- active intruders tend to keep their work private.

"It's better to burn out, than to fade away."