If you can’t stand the heat, don’t call ’em

There will come a day when you get tagged by a hacker. But once you figure out how it happened and close the hole, should you call the cops?

Calling in the authorities is a hard decision to make because it could result in more pain-both business and personal. If you don’t notify law enforcement and you’re hacked again, you’ll lose credibility with upper management. There can be business insurance ramifications for not filing a police report, and of course, lack of legal involvement means that the culprit will never get prosecuted in a criminal court.

On the other hand, many level-headed executives worry that investigators will freeze systems and possibly even seize mission-critical equipment. In complicated cases, they might have to.

A landmark case occurred in 1990 when the Secret Service impounded computer equipment and data owned by Steve Jackson Games in connection with an unrelated investigation involving one of its employees. Collateral business damage from the investigation almost forced the company to go under. Every copy of the current product under development was taken. Some files were given back in a month, but data was destroyed. The hardware itself was kept for four months. The company sued the government, and was awarded US$50,000 plus legal fees.

Here are some pitfalls of calling in the authorities:

– Any empowered employee (an ambiguous legal term that can cover anyone from a systems administrator to a manager or executive) can grant consent for a search that otherwise couldn’t be executed without a warrant.

– Some circumstances permit unrelated information uncovered in a search to be used by the government as evidence of other crimes.

– Your company will lose all control over the prosecution. This matters if it looks like an inside job.

The constitutional test for privacy is based on “reasonable expectation of privacy.” When customer -information enters third-party hands, its legal protection is diminished.

By the way, nothing that I’ve said necessarily applies to state and local law enforcement. The training varies enormously by locale, so I would discourage calling in the police under any but the simplest cases where the motive is clearly theft. If it’s a denial-of-service attack, notify CERT (www.cert.org).

Deciding whether to call in the authorities is a business decision. If there isn’t a clear goal, such as prosecution of a thief, it may not be worth the risk. No one can guarantee that assets won’t be taken. The Department of Justice’s guidelines for computer seizure (www.usdoj.gov) should be required reading for CSOs. It explicitly warns that “…If the agents cannot learn where the information is stored or cannot create a working mirror image for technical reasons, they may have no choice but to seize the computer and remove it.”

The moral of this story is, if you don’t need to call, don’t. If you do call, be prepared to cooperate.