Antivirus vendors are at loggerheads over whether they should include in their software packages detection for a Trojan horse program reportedly under development by the FBI.
A keystroke logging Trojan, called Magic Lantern, will enable investigators to discover break PGP encoded messages sent by suspects under investigation, MSNBC reports. By logging what a suspect types, and transmitting this back to investigators, the FBI could use Magic Lantern to work out a suspect's passphrase. Getting a target's private PGP keyring is easy in comparison, and with the two any message can be broken.
MSNBC quotes unnamed sources who says that Magic Lantern could be sent to a target by email or planted on a suspect's PC by exploiting common operating system vulnerabilities.
Although unconfirmed, the reports are been taken seriously in the security community, and are consistent with the admitted use of key-logging software in the investigation of suspected mobster Nicodemo Scarfo. In that case, FBI agents obtained a warrant to enter Scarfo's office and install keystroke logging software on his machine.
Magic Lantern, which would be an extension of the Carnivore Internet surveillance program, takes the idea one step further by enabling agents to place a Trojan on a target's computer without having to gain physical access.
The suggested technique creates a clutch of legal, ethical and technical issues. Greater powers in the Patriot Act, which Congress is considering, may allow the tool to be used. But what if it was modified for use by hackers?
And antivirus vendors are mulling over the rights and wrongs of putting Magic Lantern on their virus definition list.
Eric Chien, chief researcher at Symantec's antivirus research lab, said that provided a hypothetical keystroke logging tool was used only by the FBI, then Symantec would avoid updating its antivirus tools to detect such a Trojan.
Symantec is yet to hear back from the FBI on its enquiries about Magic Lantern.
"If it was under the control of the FBI, with appropriate technical safeguards in place to prevent possible misuse, and nobody else used it - we wouldn't detect it," said Chien. "However we would detect modified versions that might be used by hackers."
Graham Cluley, senior technology consultant at Sophos, disagrees. He says it it wrong to deliberately refrain from detecting the virus, because its customers outside the US would expect protection against the Trojan. Such a move also creates an awkward precedent.
Cluley adds: "What if the French intelligence service, or even the Greeks, created a Trojan horse program for this purpose? Should we ignore those too?" ®
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