Antivirus software vendors said Monday they don't want to create a loophole in their security products to let the FBI or other government agencies use a virus to eavesdrop on the computer communications of suspected criminals.
Under a project code-named "Magic Lantern," the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation is creating an e-mail-borne virus or Trojan horse that hides itself on the computer and captures all keystrokes made, including passwords that could be used to read encrypted mail.
Despite subsequent reports to the contrary, officials at Symantec and Network Associates said they had no intention of voluntarily modifying their products to satisfy the FBI. Spokesmen at two other computer security companies, Japan-based Trend Micro and the U.S. subsidiary of U.K.-based Sophos made similar statements.
All four antivirus companies said they had not contacted or been contacted by the U.S. government on the matter.
The FBI declined to confirm or deny the report about "Magic Lantern," when it was first published by MSNBC and a spokesman was not available for comment Monday.
"We're in the business of providing a virus-free environment for our users and we're not going to do anything to compromise that security," said Tony Thompson of Network Associates.
"Symantec's first priority is to protect our customers from malicious and illegal attacks," Symantec Chief Executive John W. Thompson said in a statement. "We have no intention of creating or leaving a hole in our software that might compromise that security."
If antivirus vendors were to leave a hole for an FBI-created Trojan horse program, malicious hackers would try to exploit the hole too, experts said.
"If you leave the weakness for the FBI, you leave it for everybody," said Fred Cohen, an independent security expert and digital forensics professor at the University of New Haven.
From the industry perspective, leaving a hole in antivirus software would erode public confidence and damage the reputation of the vendor, sending customers to competing companies, the vendors said.
The government would have to convince all antivirus vendors to cooperate or the plan wouldn't work, since those not cooperating would have a market advantage and since they all share information, a Symantec spokeswoman said.
"The thought that you would be able to convince the industry as a whole to do this is kind of naive," she said.
Symantec and Networks Associates, both of which have investments in China, would not jeopardize their footings in that market, said Rob Rosenberger, editor of Vmyths.com, a Web site that debunks virus hoaxes.
"If (the Chinese) thought that the company was a tool of the CIA, China would stop using those products in critical environments," Rosenberger said. "It is in the best interest of antivirus vendors not to heed the call of the FBI."
"We always try to cooperate with the authorities when it's appropriate. Having said that, our No. 1 goal is to protect our customers," said Barbara Woolf of Trend Micro. "I've heard reports that the government is upset this got out and is going back to the drawing board."
Appeasing the U.S. government would be difficult for vendors that have parent companies and customers outside the United States, they said.
"If the laws of the land were to change to permit this kind of activity, then we would abide by the law," said David Hughes, president of Sophos' U.S. subsidiary.
But "how would a vendor provide protection for customers outside of the specific jurisdiction?" Hughes said. "If we were to do this for the U.S. government we'd also have to do it for the government of any other nation that would want to do something similar."
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