Matt Blaze's
Science, Security, Curiosity
Security by Restraining Order
And their fate is still unlearn'd.

A group of MIT students made news last week with their discovery of insecurities in Boston's "Charlie" transit fare payment system [pdf]. The three students, Zack Anderson, R.J. Ryan and Alessandro Chiesa, were working on an undergraduate research project for Ron Rivest. They had planned to present their findings at the DEFCON conference last weekend, but were prevented from doing so after the transit authority obtained a restraining order against them in federal court.

The court sets a dangerous standard here, with implications well beyond MIT and Boston. It suggests that advances in security research can be suppressed for the convenience of vendors and users of flawed systems. It will, of course, backfire, with the details of the weaknesses (and their exploitation) inevitably leaking into the underground. Worse, the incident sends an insidious message to the research community: warning vendors or users before publishing a security problem is risky and invites a gag order from a court. The ironic -- and terribly unfortunate -- effect will be to discourage precisely the responsible behavior that the court and the MBTA seek to promote. The lesson seems to be that the students would have been better off had they simply gone ahaed without warning, effectively blindsiding the very people they were trying to help.

The Electronic Frontier Foundation is representing the students, and as part of their case I (along with a number of other academic researchers) signed a letter [pdf] urging the judge to reverse his order.

Update 8/13/08: Steve Bellovin blogs about the case here.