Canadian government regulators are using the country’s powerful new anti-spam law to pursue hefty fines of up to a million dollars against Canadian citizens suspected of helping to spread malicious software.
In March 2019, the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) — Canada’s equivalent of the U.S. Federal Communications Commission (FCC), executed a search warrant in tandem with the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) at the home of a Toronto software developer behind the Orcus RAT, a product that’s been marketed on underground forums and used in countless malware attacks since its creation in 2015.
The CRTC was flexing relatively new administrative muscles gained from the passage of Canada’s Anti-Spam Legislation (CASL), which covers far more than just junk email. Section 7 of CASL deals with the alteration of transmission data, including botnet activity. Section 8 involves the surreptitious installation of computer programs on computers or networks including malware and spyware.
And Section 9 prohibits an individual or organization from aiding, inducing, procuring or causing to be procured the doing of any of the above acts.
CRTC Director Neil Barratt said this allows his agency to target intermediaries who, through their actions or through inaction, facilitate the commission of CASL violations. Businesses found to be in violation of CASL can be fined up to $10 million; individuals can face up to a $1 million fine.
“We’re dealing with a lower burden of proof than a criminal conviction, and CASL gives us a little more leeway to get bad actors off our networks in Canada and to ultimately improve security for people here and hopefully elsewhere,” Barratt said in an interview with KrebsOnSecurity.
“CASL defines spam as commercial electronic messages without consent or the installation of software without consent or the intercepting of electronic messages,” Barratt said. “The installation of software is under Section 8, and this is one of the first major investigations under that statute.”
Barratt added that the CRTC also was counting on CASL to help tidy up the reputation of the Canadian Web hosting industry.
“We’ve been trying to make sure that service providers operating in Canada — whether or not they are Canadian — are not unduly contributing to the infection of machines and hosting malware,” Barratt said. “We have great power in CASL and Section 9 makes it a violation to aid in the doing of a violation. And this extends quite broadly, across email service providers and various intermediaries.”
The enforcement division of the CRTC recently took action against two companies — Datablocks Inc. and Sunlight Media Network Inc — for having violated CASL section 9 by disseminating online ads that caused malicious computer programs to be downloaded onto the computers of unsuspecting victims.
Under CASL, and for the purposes of verifying compliance or determining whether any of sections 6 to 9 were violated, the CRTC may compel individuals and organizations to provide any information in their possession or control, and ask a justice of the peace to issue a warrant authorizing entry into a place of residence.
It’s good to see a civil anti-spam law being used to go after people involved in selling malware couched as legitimate software, as seems to be the case with the Orcus RAT investigation. A relatively competent remote access trojan author can earn a tidy income selling their wares, but CASL may give Canadians interested in this line of a work a reason to reconsider if the end result is a million dollar fine.
More to the point, Canada (anecdotally at least) seems to have far more than its fair share of computer criminals, and yet unfortunately far less appetite than many other western countries for prosecuting those individuals criminally. In this regard, CASL offers a welcome alternative.
“One of the key takeaways of CASL was that it wasn’t just about emails that were annoying people, but also the use of email as a vector to mislead or defraud people and cause harm to computers and computer networks,” Barratt said. “Our parliamentarians decided to ensure the legislature covered a broad ambit. The search warrant executed in this case was a great example of criminal and civil law enforcement working together by using our unique tools and powers under the act to achieve the greatest good we could.”