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Researchers Warn: Pending Supreme Court Ruling Could Empower Hackers, Thwart Security Research

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July 29, 2020

Restrictions mandated by terms of service are nothing more than security theater; they don’t deter criminals, but strictly interpreted they do shut down useful research, and the end result is a more insecure internet. That’s according to a paper written by four co-authors, from Microsoft, Harvard Law School, Harvard’s Berkman Klein Center for Internet and Society, and the University of Toronto’s Citizen Lab. The paper was presented recently at an international conference on”ML” (i.e., machine learning – the core of such things as driverless cars and facial recognition systems). A key issue to watch, the authors say, is how courts interpret the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act (CFAA), and in particular their read on so-called “terms of service.” Lower courts have taken an expansive view regarding the reach of this bizarre document, a position that according to the authors could be considered “a legalistic form of security theater: performative, providing little actual security protection, while actually chilling practices that may lead to better security.” The Ninth circuit has interpreted terms of service more narrowly, and the issue is expected to be clarified in Van Buren v. United States, a case the Supreme Court will hear in 2021. “If we are correct and the Supreme Court follows the Ninth Circuit’s narrow construction,” the researchers write, “this will have important implications for adversarial ML. In fact, we believe that this will lead to better security outcomes in the long term.” The title of the paper is “Legal Risks of Adversarial Machine Learning Research.”

 

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