Recognizing the Gray Areas in Security

Since technology can be used by the good and bad guys, there is always a fine line that separates the two. For example, BitTorrent is a peer-to-peer file sharing protocol that al- lows individuals all over the world to share files whether they are the legal owners or not. One website will have the metadata of the files that are being offered up, but in- stead of the files being available on that site’s web farm, the files are located on the user’s system who is offering up the files. This distributed approach ensures that one web server farm is not overwhelmed with file requests, but it also makes it harder to track down those who are offering up illegal material.

Various publishers and owners of copyrighted material have used legal means to persuade sites that maintain such material to honor the copyrights. The fine line is that sites that use the BitTorrent protocol are like windows for all the material others are offering to the world; they don’t actually host this material on their physical servers. So are they legally responsible for offering and spreading illegal content?

The entities that offer up files to be shared on a peer-to-peer sharing site are referred to as BitTorrent trackers. Organizations such as, TorrentSpy, LokiTorrent, and Mininova are some of the BitTorrent trackers that have been sued and brought off-line for their illegal distribution of copyrighted material. The problem is that many of these entities just pop up on some other BitTorrent site a few days later. BitTorrent is a common example of a technology that can be used for good and evil purposes.

Another common gray area in web-based technology is search engine optimization (SEO). Today, all organizations and individuals want to be at the top of each search engine result to get as much exposure as possible. Many simple to sophisticated ways are available for carrying out the necessary tasks to climb to the top. The proper methods are to release metadata that directly relates to content on your site, update your content regularly, and create legal links and backlinks to other sites, etc. But, for every legitimate way of working with search engine algorithms, there are ten illegitimate ways. Spamdexing offers a long list of ways to fool search engines into getting a specific site up the ladder in a search engine listing. Then there’s keyword stuffing, in which a malicious hacker or “black hat” will place hidden text within a page. For example, if Bob has a website that carries out a phishing attack, he might insert hidden text within his page that targets elderly people to help drive these types of victims to his site.

There are scraper sites that take (scrape) content from another website without authorization. The malicious site will make this stolen content unique enough that it shows up as new content on the Web, thus fooling the search engine into giving it a higher ranking. These sites commonly contain mostly advertisements and links back to the original sites.

There are several other ways of manipulating search engine algorithms as well, for instance, creating link farms, hidden links, fake blogs, page hijacking, and so on. The crux here is that some of these activities are the right way of doing things and some of them are the wrong way of doing things. Our laws have not necessarily caught up with defining what is legal and illegal all the way down to SEO algorithm activities.

There are multiple instances of the controversial concept of hactivism. Both legal and illegal methods can be used to portray political ideology. Is it right to try and influence social change through the use of technology? Is web defacement covered under freedom of speech? Is it wrong to carry out a virtual “sit in” on a site that provides illegal content? During the 2009 Iran elections, was it unethical for an individual to set up a site that showed upheaval about the potential corrupt government elections? When Israeli invaded Gaza, there were many website defacements, DoS attacks, and website highjackings. The claim of what is ethical versus not ethical probably depends upon which side the individuals making these calls reside.