On March 4, 2013, a contest was held at the Nullcon conference in Goa, India, to see who could take over a botnet. The Times of India reported that the prize money was provided by an Indian government official and was awarded to the Garage4Hackers team. The co-founder of the Nullcon conference, Antriksh Shah, said “At Nullcon Goa 2013, for the first time in the world the government has come forward and announced a bounty prize of Rs 35,000 to whoever provides critical information on the command and control servers of a malware recently found in one of the government installations in India,” and then tweeted, “Dawn of new infosec era. Govt of India announced (and actually paid) first ever bounty (Rs. 35 k) at nullcon to take down a c&c.” When asked whether this was a live botnet, or a simulated botnet held within a safe and isolated virtual network where no harm could result, Nullcon tweeted, “it was a live campaign up since a couple of yrs and the malware was found in a gov. Infra.”
People may argue that a botnet that is active for over a year is a problem that needs to be dealt with. They may criticize law enforcement for not taking care of the problem. They may also argue that India is an autonomous country whose government can, as Shah put it, “[show] the first signs of government-community partnership in fighting cyber crimes in [India].”
But I fail to see how this action can be justified on any ethical grounds, on legal grounds, or conform with any international legal norms that I am aware of. A contest is the least controlled, riskiest, noisiest, and most irresponsible way to deal with a criminal botnet I can imagine. And I have looked at a few botnet takedowns.
I would really love to see some skilled reporters ask the Indian government official who put up the prize money and conference organizers to answer a few questions about this little stunt, and I hope everyone who applauded this action and congratulated the team on its victory thinks about them as well. We need to have ways to counter botnets, but this is not the way to go about it. If this really is the dawning of a new era, is it one that we all (as internet users whose computers are often used for criminal acts such as the one represented by this botnet) want to see as a new norm, a new everyday occurrence where random attendees at a conference blast away as they see fit, not giving any apparent thought to the harm they may cause to innocent third parties? That’s not the internet I want to see develop.
These are just a few of the questions that deserve to be asked and answered before the next conference organizer in India or any other country decides to up the ante, make a bigger splash, generate even more headlines, and further increase the level of risks being taken without ethical justifications, legal justifications, or any reasonable care and caution against harming innocent third parties. This isn’t a game, though more and more it seems the cheering conference crowds and twitter followers think it is and want to see more of it.