EFF to appeal court order halting subway hacker talk at Defcon

Defcon presentation would have detailed flaws in the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority electronic ticketing system

The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) plans to appeal a U.S. District Court order imposing a temporary injunction on a Defcon presentation that would have detailed flaws in the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority (MBTA) electronic ticketing system.

"The court ultimately came to a very, very wrong conclusion," EFF senior staff attorney Kurt Opsahl said during an EFF discussion at Defcon a few hours after Judge Douglas Woodlock of the U.S. District Court for the District of Massachusetts issued a court order halting the planned talk about the transit-system security flaws.

[ For more news from the Black Hat and Defcon 08 security conferences, read InfoWorld's special report. ]

The MBTA filed a lawsuit Friday seeking to stop three Massachusetts Institute of Technology students from giving the talk. The lawsuit also names MIT as a defendant. The Boston-area transportation authority argued that the presentation would cause "significant damage to the MBTA's transit system," according to an online posting of the lawsuit.

MIT students Zack Anderson, Russell "RJ" Ryan and Alessandro Chiesa had been scheduled to talk about "The Anatomy of a Subway Hack: Breaking Crypto RFIDs & Magstripes of Ticketing Systems" at the Defcon conference Sunday. They received an "A" grade on the project in an MIT class, Opsahl said.

"The first notice that the MBTA provided that they were going to the court was after they had gone to the court," Opsahl said at the EFF session. The judge cited a computer intrusion statute in issuing the order, he said.

"The statute on its face appears to be discussing sending code programs or similar type of information to a computer and does not appear to contemplate somebody who is giving a talk to humans," Opsahl said. "Nevertheless, the court disagreed with that interpretation."

The court order seems to say that a magnetic strip on a paper card or a smartcard counts as a computer and the EFF disagrees with that interpretation, he said.

The temporary restraining order "reflects the court's view that they believe that the Massachusetts Bay Transit Authority was likely to succeed on the merits -- we think that's actually not the case," Opsahl said.

Some of the material in the students' talk regarding security problems with the MBTA's electronic ticketing system had been previously reported in the Boston Globe and Boston Herald newspapers, Opsahl said.

"Courts have found that the First Amendment covers these things," Opsahl said. "We believe that this is a protected speech activity. When you discuss security issues, if you are telling the truth, that is something that should be protected."

Though the students are barred by court order from providing information that would have helped others circumvent the talk, their presentation slides had already been included in a conference CD given to Defcon attendees. The MBTA itself put some details in the public record, by filing a confidential assessment of its security system with the court.

In the Defcon presentation slides, the students describe a variety of techniques that could be used to gain free access to Boston's transit system, some of which they admit are illegal. They say that the point of the talk is to show the results of a penetration test of the MBTA system, but they were clearly aware that it could have caused legal problems. One slide reads simply "What this talk is not: evidence in court (hopefully)".

The passage in the Defcon show guide describing their talk begins, "Want free subway rides for life?" That line was removed from the description of the talk posted at the Defcon Web site.

The students discuss physical security problems they found with the system, such as unlocked gates and unattended surveillance booths. They say they were able to access fiber switches connecting fare vending machines to the unlocked network, and they also describe techniques to clone and reverse-engineer the MBTA's CharlieTicket magnetic stripe tickets and CharlieCard smartcards.

In court filings, the MBTA says that 68 percent of its riders use the CharlieCard, which brings in about $475,000 to the transit authority each weekday.

An MBTA vendor tipped off the authority on July 30 that the talk was scheduled, the court filing states. According to Opsahl, the students met with MBTA officials on Monday and it was their understanding after that meeting that the situation had been resolved.

The students were "very, very surprised," by the suit, Zack Anderson said in a press conference after the EFF discussion.

"We felt, due to verbal comments that were given to us that the issue was resolved," he said. "They asked for some materials to be submitted to them, which we agreed to, and we did get those to them yesterday."

The students said they tried to contact the MBTA around July 20 through their professor Ron Rivest, who teaches in MIT's Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science, but did not actually connect with the agency until around July 30.

It's been a crazy week for Anderson, who looked haggard -- he said it took him 18 hours to travel by air to Defcon and he had not slept since Thursday.

An MBTA lawyer has not returned messages Saturday seeking comment for stories about the matter.

The CharlieCard is based on the same Mifare Classic RFID (radio frequency identification) technology used by many other transit systems around the world. Earlier this year, Mifare's producer, NXP, sued to prevent researchers from presenting research on how to crack this technology. A Dutch court rejected NXP's claims last month.

With an average weekday ridership of 1.4 million commuters, the MBTA is the nation's fifth-largest transit system, according to the lawsuit.

Lawsuits involving Defcon presentations have also occurred in the past. Security researcher Mike Lynn was sued in 2005 after he gave a controversial presentation disclosing flaws in Cisco's routers. In response, the EFF this year started a drop-in service, providing Defcon presenters free legal advice on how to respond to threats of legal action.

Although conference attendees are now speculating that another talk on the MBTA system may replace the cancelled talk, Anderson said he and his fellow researchers say they intend to comply with the court order. "We disagree with the ruling, but we're not going to disobey it," he said.

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