Symbiot, a Texas-based security firm, is preparing to launch a corporate defence system at the end of March that can fight back against distributed denial-of-service (DDoS) and hacker attacks by launching a counter-strike.
In advance of the product launch, Symbiot's president, Mike Erwin, and its chief scientist, Paco Nathan, have outlined a set of "rules of engagement for information warfare", which they say should be part of corporate security policy to help companies determine their exact response to an incoming attack.
"Until today, security solutions have been totally passive in nature. Merely erecting defensive walls around the perimeter of an enterprise network is not an adequate deterrent," said Erwin, who argues that to have a complete defence in place, offensive tactics must be employed. The company said it bases its theory on the military doctrine of "necessity and proportionality", which means the response to an attack is proportionate to the attack's ferocity. According to the company, a response could range from "profiling and blacklisting upstream providers" or it could be escalated to launch a "distributed denial of service counter-strike".
Security experts expressed alarm at the company's plans.
Graham Titterington, principal analyst at Ovum, said "such a counterattack would not be regarded as self-defence and would therefore be an attack. It would be illegal in those jurisdictions where an anti-hacking law is in place." He added that because many hacking and DDoS attacks are launched from hijacked computers, the system would be unlikely to find its real target: "Attacks are often launched from a site that has been hijacked, making it an unwitting and innocent -- although possibly slightly negligent -- party."
Richard Starnes, director of incident response at Cable and Wireless Managed Security Services, said he would not employ an "active defence technique" because there are legal and ethical issues involved. Also, he would not be happy about any product "specifically designed to launch attacks" being put into commercial production. Starnes said it would be easy to hit the wrong target and even if it was the right target, there could be collateral damage: "You may be taking out grandma's computer in Birmingham that has got a 100-year-old cookie recipe that has not been backed up. The attack could also knock over a Point of Presence (PoP), so you are not only attacking the target, but also the feeds before them -- this means taking out ISPs, businesses and home users."
Jay Heiser, chief analyst at IT risk management company TruSecure, said that he expects the product to have "emotional appeal" to companies that have been targets, but "that is a very bad criterion for choosing risk-reduction measures."
"There is no evidence that this is the most effective way to deal with the problems and there is quite a bit of historical precedence that indicates it is totally counterproductive," added Heiser.
Governments could soon be using hacker tools for law enforcement and the pursuit of justice, according to an expert on IT and Internet law. Joel Reidenberg, professor of law at New York-based Fordham University, believes it likely that denial of service attacks (DoS) and packet-blocking technology will be employed by nation states to enforce their laws. This could even include attacks on companies based in other countries, he says.
ZDNet UK's Graeme Wearden contributed to this story.