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MIT Students Gagged by Federal Court Judge

PRESS RELEASE
August 9, 2008
EFF Backs Researchers Forced to Cancel Presentation on Transit Fare Payment System

Las Vegas - Three students at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) were ordered this morning by a federal court judge to cancel their scheduled presentation about vulnerabilities in Boston's transit fare payment system, violating their First Amendment right to discuss their important research.

The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) represents Zack Anderson, RJ Ryan and Alessandro Chiesa, who were set to present their findings Sunday at DEFCON, a security conference held in Las Vegas. However, the Massachusetts Bay Transit Authority (MBTA) sued the students and MIT in United States District Court in Massachusetts on Friday, claiming that the students violated the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act (CFAA) by delivering information to conference attendees that could be used to defraud the MBTA of transit fares. This morning District Judge Douglas P. Woodlock, meeting in a special Saturday session, ordered the trio not to disclose for ten days any information that could be used by others to get free subway rides.

"We wanted to share our academic work with the security community and had planned to withhold a key detail of our results so that a malicious attacker could not use our research for fraudulent purposes," said Anderson. "We're disappointed that the court is preventing us from presenting our findings even with this safeguard."

Vulnerabilities in magnetic stripe and RFID card payment systems implemented by many urban transit systems are generally known. The student research applied this information to the specific case of Boston's Charlie Card and Charlie Ticket, and the project earned an A from renowned computer scientist and MIT professor Dr. Ron Rivest.

The court relied on a federal law aimed at computer intrusions in issuing its order, holding that even discussing the flaws at a public conference constituted a "transmission" of a computer program that could harm the fare collection system.

"The court's order is an illegal prior restraint on legitimate academic research in violation of the First Amendment," said EFF Civil Liberties Director Jennifer Granick. "The court has adopted an interpretation of the statute that is blatantly unconstitutional, equating discussion in a public forum with computer intrusion. Security and the public interest benefit immensely from the free flow of ideas and information on vulnerabilities. More importantly, squelching research and scientific discussion won't stop the attackers. It will just stop the public from knowing that these systems are vulnerable and from pressuring the companies that develop and implement them to fix security holes."

This case is part of EFF's Coders' Rights Project, launched just this week to protect programmers and developers from legal threats hampering their cutting-edge research. EFF will seek relief for the researchers in the courts.

For the full temporary restraining order:
http://www.eff.org/files/filenode/MIT%20students%20TRO.pdf

For more on the Coders' Rights Project:
http://www.eff.org/issues/coders

Contacts:

Jennifer Stisa Granick
Civil Liberties Director
Electronic Frontier Foundation
jennifer@eff.org

Marcia Hofmann
Staff Attorney
Electronic Frontier Foundation
marcia@eff.org

Rebecca Jeschke
Media Coordinator
Electronic Frontier Foundation
press@eff.org

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