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Cybersecurity Unit
Computer Crime & Intellectual Property Section
Criminal Division
U.S. Department of Justice
1301 New York Avenue, N.W., 6th Floor, Washington, D.C. 20530 – CYBERSECURITY.CCIPS@USDOJ.GOV – (202)514-1026
Legal Considerations when Gathering Online
Cyber Threat Intelligence and Purchasing Data
from Illicit Sources1
Version 1.0 (February 2020)
I. Introduction
The Cybersecurity Unit (CsU) prepared this document in response to questions posed by
private organizations about the legality of specific cybersecurity measures. 2 It includes
contributions from other components of the Department of Justice, such as the National Security
Division, and other federal agencies. 3 Consistent with the CsU’s mission, this document is
intended to help organizations adopt effective cybersecurity practices and to conduct them in a
lawful manner.
This document focuses on information security practitioners’ cyber threat intelligencegathering efforts that involve online forums in which computer crimes are discussed and planned
and stolen data is bought and sold. It also contemplates situations in which private actors attempt
to purchase malware, security vulnerabilities, or their own stolen data—or stolen data belonging
to others with the data owners’ authorization—in Dark Markets. 4 It is not, however, intended to
This document confers no rights or remedies and does not have the force of law. See United States v. Caceres, 440
U.S. 741, 752-753 (1979). This document is also not intended to have any regulatory effect.
This document focuses on activities conducted by private actors. Additional legal and policy issues not addressed
in this document may arise when government actors engage in the activities discussed herein. Government actors
should consult agency or department counsel or contact the CsU for advice regarding their activities.
The Department of Justice’s Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), the Department of Homeland Security’s
United States Secret Service (U.S. Secret Service), and the Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Asset Control
(OFAC) provided valuable input to this paper.
Dark Markets are found on the TOR (“the Onion Router”) network, which is a collection of computers designed to
obfuscate the origin of online communications. The TOR network encrypts and routes communications through a
series of relays around the world to thwart efforts to trace their origin. TOR hidden services, also called the “Dark
Web,” are sites that may only be accessed using a TOR browser. Because the location of sites operating as TOR
hidden services is concealed and difficult to trace, TOR hidden services are a preferred technique for hosting sites
associated with illegal activities.
cover intelligence or evidence gathering involving other types of criminal forums, such as
forums that traffic in child pornography5 or illicit drugs.
The scenarios referenced in this document are derived from practices that the CsU’s
private sector outreach and engagement suggest are commonly used by the cybersecurity
community to gather intelligence, retrieve stolen data, and obtain malware samples and security
vulnerabilities. The legal concerns discussed herein are likely to arise when information security
practitioners engage in those activities. While this document is intended to provide assistance in
identifying potential legal issues, it does not—and cannot—comprehensively address all the legal
issues that practitioners may face in every
circumstance, particularly because minor changes
Two Rules to Always Follow
in facts can substantially alter the legal analysis.
Accordingly, we strongly recommend that
1. Don’t Become a Perpetrator: Some of the
activities discussed in this document
consumers of this document consult with legal
implicate federal criminal law and may
counsel to make proper use of its
violate State law and/or create civil
recommendations and analysis. 6
liability. Organizations anticipating they
will engage in those activities should
consult with their legal counsel to assess
the legality of planned activities. It may
also be beneficial in some circumstances
to cultivate a relationship with local FBI
and U.S. Secret Service field offices if
contemplating these types of operations.
Contact information is provided at the
end of this document.
2. Don’t Become a Victim: The
cybersecurity activities discussed in this
document may involve interacting with
sophisticated criminal actors. They
should not be undertaken without a
deliberate assessment of risk. An
organization planning to engage in these
activities should remain vigilant, institute
appropriate security safeguards, and
adhere to cybersecurity practices that will
minimize the risk that it will be
The legal discussion in this document is
limited to U.S. federal criminal law. It does not
focus on civil liability, state law, or the law of
countries other than the United States, nor does it
cover potential regulatory restrictions.
II. Scenario Assumptions
The scenarios discussed below are
premised on the activities of private sector
information security practitioners who gather
information from Dark Market forums as part of
their cybersecurity activities. They are based
upon legally significant assumptions about the
way practitioners conduct their activities and the
practitioners’ intent.
The legal analysis for gathering information from forums that traffic in child pornography or related illegal
activities would likely differ from the analysis provided here, because it is illegal to use the Internet or cell phones to
knowingly advertise, distribute, receive, or possess child pornography, or to access it intentionally. See 18 U.S.C.
§§ 2251, 2252, and 2252A. Therefore, conducting intelligence gathering and other operations on those forums
would involve different legal considerations.
This document can serve as a starting point for a security practitioner’s discussion with his or her organization’s
legal counsel. Fact-specific application of the considerations highlighted in this document will allow an
organization to tailor its plans to fit its individualized assessments of legal benefits and risks before proceeding.
Tips on Lawfully Collecting
Intelligence in Online Forums
Passively Collecting Intelligence
Typically Is Not Illegal: Doing nothing
more than passively gathering
information from an online forum, even
one on which criminal conduct related to
computer crime is conducted, is unlikely
to constitute a federal crime, particularly
when done without any criminal intent.
However, accessing such a forum
without authorization or surreptitiously
intercepting communications occurring
on that forum could raise legal concerns
under the Computer Fraud and Abuse
Act (18 U.S.C. §1030) (CFAA) and the
Wiretap Act (18 U.S.C. § 2511).
Access Forums Lawfully: Accessing a
forum in an unauthorized manner, such
as by exploiting a vulnerability or by
using stolen credentials, can implicate
the CFAA and statutes like the Access
Device Fraud statute (18 U.S.C. § 1029).
Do Not Assume Someone Else’s Identity
without Consent: Using a fake online
identity to gain access to or participate in
a forum where criminal conduct is
occurring, standing alone, is typically
not a violation of federal criminal law.
However, assuming the identity of an
actual person without his or her
permission rather than manufacturing a
false persona can cause legal problems.
A. Security Practitioners
This document focuses on private sector
information security practitioners who obtain
information (i.e., cyber threat intelligence, stolen
data, security vulnerabilities, and malware) from
Dark Markets where tools and services associated
with the commission of computer crimes are
bought and sold and stolen data is available for
purchase. It assumes these activities are
conducted within the jurisdiction of United States
and in a manner that renders them subject to U.S.
federal criminal law. 7 It also assumes the
practitioners obtain information solely so that it
can be used and shared for legitimate
cybersecurity purposes (e.g., to help others
identify and defend against cybersecurity threats)
and with no criminal or malicious intent or
Practitioners engaged in these types of
online activities frequently use pseudonyms and
fabricated identities while operating on forums for
security and personal safety reasons. As discussed
below, fake identities should be entirely fabricated
and not involve assuming the identity of actual
people without their authorization. Fabricated
online identities should also not involve falsely
The application of federal criminal law to activities occurring online can be complicated. Some cybercrime
statutes have broad jurisdictional reach: for example, the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act (CFAA) covers cyber
attacks and intrusions against computers that are used in or affect interstate or foreign commerce and
communications, even when the targeted computers are outside the United States. See 18 U.S.C. § 1030(e)(2)(B).
Other criminal prohibitions have more limited reach and many have no extraterritorial application at all. See, e.g.,
European Cmty. v. RJR Nabisco, Inc., 764 F.3d 129, 141 (2d Cir. 2014), rev’d on other grounds, 136 S.Ct. 2090
(quoting Morrison v. Nat’l Austl. Bank Ltd., 561 U.S. 247, 264 (2010)) (Second Circuit holding that 18 U.S. § 1343
(the wire fraud statute) does not apply to wholly extraterritorial activity). The issue of applicability of federal
criminal law to online conduct is unavoidably fact-dependent and requires a statute-specific analysis. For the most
part, the scenarios in this document presume federal jurisdiction and that the federal criminal law being discussed
extends itself to the facts being considered. It does not, however, address whether the activity may implicate the law
of other countries, such as locations where forums may be hosted, which may be implicated by the activities.
claiming to be someone with any special status, such as a government official. 8
B. The Forums
The forums on which cybersecurity practitioners gather cyber threat intelligence vary.
Most are found on the Dark Web on sites accessible through the TOR network as hidden
services. 9 Some of these Dark Market forums are invitation-only sites known in information
security circles for being used to obtain illegal services and purchase stolen financial and
personal data. Others are openly accessible on the Dark Web, relying on the anonymity
furnished by TOR to shield their operators. The discussion threads in some of these forums
include topics of general interest related to coding and malware; however, the sites of greatest
interest to security practitioners openly advertise illegal services and the sale of stolen credit card
numbers, compromised passwords, and other sensitive information. 10
C. Accessing the Forums
The manner in which a forum is accessed can be legally material. Accessing forums
using legitimate credentials provided by forum operators is the best way of avoiding legal issues
concerning the means of access. Gaining access to forums using unauthorized means could
violate federal criminal law. For instance, using stolen credentials to access the forum could
constitute a violation of, inter alia, the CFAA. 11 Also, using an exploit or other technique to
access and gather information from a server or system on which the forum operates rather than
through intended (and therefore authorized) means could violate the CFAA and possibly other
federal criminal statutes that govern electronic surveillance. 12 Accessing forums contrary to a
forum’s policies may likewise raise legal issues about lawful access under the CFAA. 13
Forums operated by criminal actors may require proof that someone seeking access to the
forum has bona fide criminal intent. For instance, the forum operator may require the purchase
See infra p. 6 and note 17.
See supra p. 1 and note 4.
As noted at the outset, this paper does not address sites that traffic in or otherwise involve child pornography.
See supra p. 2.
See United States v. Nosal, 930 F.Supp.2d 1051, 1061 (N.D.Ca 2013) (unauthorized use of other employee’s
passwords supported charges under 18 U.S.C. § 1030(a)(4)); Global Policy Partners, LLC v. Yessin, 686 F.Supp.2d
631 (E.D.Va 2009) (a husband’s access to wife’s email account using her password without permission was a
violation of section 1030). Also, the CFAA may be implicated if the forum administrators levy specific
requirements that must be met for authorized access to the forum.
For instance, if electronic communications were intercepted without the communicants’ consent using a
surreptitiously installed “sniffer” or similar program installed on the host server, the Wiretap Act (18 U.S.C. § 2511
et seq.) could apply. Such activities could also violate other laws and the privacy of innocent parties whose web
sites share space on the same server.
Accessing an online site contrary to its access policies can raise questions about the lawfulness of such access.
Compare hiQ Labs, Inc. v. LinkedIn Corp., 938 F.3d 985 (9th Cir. 2019) (holding web scraping of publicly
accessible web site was not violation of CFAA where there was no circumvention of access permissions) with
Konop v. Hawaiian Airline, Inc., 302 F.3d 868, 876 (9th Cir. 2002) (discussing in dicta potential for web site access
restrictions to affect lawful access).
Best Practices I
Create “Rules of Engagement”: If your
organization conducts activities described
in this document, or is planning to do so, it
should prepare “rules of engagement” or a
“compliance program” with protocols that
outline acceptable conduct for its personnel
and contractors who interact with criminals
and criminal organizations. Following
deliberately crafted protocols that weigh
legal, security, and operational
considerations beforehand will discourage
rash decisions that could put an
organization, its employees, and its data in
jeopardy. Having documented rules may
also prove useful if the organization ever
faces criminal, civil, or regulatory action.
Be Prepared To Be Investigated: In
situations covered by this document,
federal investigators may be unable to
readily distinguish between criminals and
innocent parties engaged in intelligence
gathering. Consequently, it is possible that
individuals engaged in legitimate
cybersecurity may become the subject of a
criminal investigation. Therefore, it may
be beneficial to build an ongoing
relationship with the local FBI field office
or Cyber Task Force and the local U.S.
Secret Service Electronic Crimes Task
Force. Having trusted lines of
communication established in advance can
avoid misunderstandings about
intelligence-gathering activities.
Practice Good Cybersecurity: In the
situations discussed in this document,
information is exchanged with cyber
criminals. There is no such thing as being
“too suspicious” in those circumstances.
Practice good cybersecurity at all times and
use systems that are not connected to your
company network and are properly secured
when communicating with cyber criminals.
or delivery of malware or stolen personal
information. As explained below, complying
with such requests may place a practitioner in
legal jeopardy. 14
The way intelligence is gathered after
accessing a forum can also raise legal questions.
As discussed further below, collecting
information using screen captures and other
commonly used methods of memorializing
online information that do not bypass security
features of the site or access information in an
unauthorized manner may avoid potential
violations of law.
III. Cyber Threat Intelligence
Using cyber threat intelligence to prepare
for or respond to cyber incidents can mitigate the
impact of malicious cyber incidents, or in some
cases even prevent them altogether. Timely,
accurate threat intelligence can protect an
organization and its customers from known
cybersecurity threats and vulnerabilities. As the
CsU has learned during its outreach about active
defense to industry, many cybersecurity
organizations consider gathering cyber threat
intelligence to be among the most fruitful of
cybersecurity activities. 15
Private sector organizations that
disseminate cyber threat intelligence gather it
from multiple sources, including in some cases
from online forums and other communication
channels where illegal activities are planned and
malware used to commit illegal acts and stolen
data are sold. Information gleaned from those
sources can be a rich source of cyber threat
intelligence and network defense information
See infra pp. 7-9.
See CSIS/DOJ Active Cyber Defense Experts Roundtable (March 10, 2015), available at
about past, current, or future cyber attacks or intrusions; malware samples; criminals’ tactics,
tools, and procedures that are in current use or under development; and aliases and identities of
individuals engaged in attacks and intrusions. But when private parties join or participate in
these online forums to collect information for lawful purposes, the line between gathering threat
intelligence and engaging in criminal activity can be hard to discern. The following discussion
of different scenarios are intended to help organizations plan to conduct their intelligence
gathering activities in a manner that reduces the potential of violating federal criminal law.
A. Scenario 1: “Lurking” in Forums to Gather Cyber Threat Intelligence
If a practitioner reads and collects communications posted openly on the forums but does
not respond to forum communications or otherwise communicate with others on or through the
forums, there is practically no risk of federal criminal liability. Standing alone, posing as a
fictitious person or using a pseudonym to gain entry to and communicate on the forums does not
violate federal criminal law, so long as that conduct is not a means of committing fraud or other
crimes and access is gained in an authorized manner. 16 That said, assuming the identity of an
actual person without permission could prove legally problematic. Depending upon the actual
person being impersonated and the actions taken under the assumed identity, a practitioner could
face criminal and civil legal action. 17
B. Scenario 2: Posing Questions on Criminal Forums
If a practitioner decides to more aggressively gather intelligence by posting inquiries on
the forum seeking information about illegal activities, the practitioner’s actions will increase the
risk of becoming the subject of a criminal investigation. While asking general questions poses
only marginal legal risk, that risk increases substantially if a practitioner’s postings appear to
solicit the commission of a crime. Soliciting or inducing the commission of a computer crime
can expose a practitioner to criminal liability. 18
If a practitioner does not intend to use information obtained on a forum to commit a
federal criminal violation, asking questions and soliciting advice on the forum is unlikely to
constitute a crime. However, law enforcement investigates forums where criminal activity is
taking place and asking questions and soliciting advice about criminal conduct is an indication
that a crime may be occurring. Consequently, there is a possibility that the practitioner’s
inquiries and exchanges with others on the forum that appear to involve discussions of criminal
conduct could implicate the practitioner in a criminal investigation of the forum or its members.
See supra Section II.C.
For example, the impersonation of an officer or employee of the United States is a violation of federal criminal
law. See 18 U.S.C. § 912. Some states have also created civil causes of action for online impersonation. See, e.g.,
WA ST 4.24.790 (June 7, 2012) (Washington State statute for “electronic impersonation—Action for invasion of
The crime of solicitation involves seeking another person to engage in a specified criminal act. See, e.g., Cal.
Penal Code § 653(f) (West 2016). There are few federal solicitation statutes that could apply to solicitation of
activity that could constitute a computer crime. See, e.g., 18 U.S.C. § 2512(1)(c) (advertising of unlawful electronic
interception device). There are, however, many state solicitation statutes that might apply if the relevant conduct
occurs within the jurisdiction of that state. In addition, a solicitation could lead to aiding and abetting a federal
crime or conspiracy to commit a federal crime. See, e,g., 18 U.S,C. §§ 2(a), 371.
This could subject the practitioner to investigative scrutiny. Practitioners and organizations can
take steps to mitigate that risk, though.
For instance, they can document their operational plans for conducting cyber threat
intelligence gathering and keep records of their online activities and how information was
gathered and used. In the event of a criminal investigation, such records may help establish that
their conduct was legitimate cybersecurity activity and help law enforcement determine that a
practitioner’s actions were executed in furtherance of the company’s legitimate cybersecurity
operations, as opposed to the actions of a rogue employee engaged in illegal conduct.
An organization should also establish policies and protocols that have been vetted with its
legal counsel to guide its employees’ and contractors’ activities on forums (and anywhere else). 19
Having vetted “rules of engagement” or a “compliance program” can help prevent personnel
from accidentally or unintentionally put their organization and its employees in legal jeopardy or
risk compromising its security. It may also be beneficial to inform law enforcement before
engaging in these intelligence-gathering activities by building an ongoing relationship with the
local FBI field office or Cyber Task Force and the local U.S. Secret Service field office or
Electronic Crimes Task Force. Early engagement with law enforcement may also help ensure
that a practitioner’s activities do not unintentionally interfere with an ongoing or anticipated
investigation by law enforcement. Contact information is provided at the end of this document.
C. Scenario 3: Exchanging Information with Others on the Forum
If a practitioner becomes an active member of a forum and exchanges information and
communicates directly with other forum members, the practitioner can quickly become
enmeshed in illegal conduct, if not careful. It may be easier for an undercover practitioner to
extract information from sources on the forum who have learned to trust the practitioner’s
persona, but developing trust and establishing bona fides as a fellow criminal may involve
offering useful information, services, or tools that can be used to commit crimes. Engaging in
such activities may well result in violating federal criminal law.
Whether a crime has occurred usually hinges on an individual’s actions and intent. A
practitioner must avoid doing anything that furthers the criminal objectives of others on the
forums. Even though the practitioner has no intention of committing a crime, assisting others
engaged in criminal conduct can constitute the federal offense of aiding and abetting. 20 An
individual may be found liable for aiding and abetting a federal offense if her or she takes an
affirmative act—even an act that is lawful on its own—that is in furtherance of the crime and
conducted with the intent of facilitating the crime’s commission. 21 Actively participating in a
Such policies and procedures—sometimes called rules of engagement or a compliance program—may give
direction on topics like gaining access to online forums, creating an online persona, and engaging in potentially
criminal conduct.
Under the federal aiding and abetting statute, one who “aids, abets, counsels, commands, induces or procures its
commission” or “willfully causes an act to be done which if directly performed by him or another would be an
offense against the United States” may be guilty of aiding and abetting and is punishable as the principal. See 18
U.S.C. § 2.
Rosemond v. United States, 572 U.S. 65, 71 (2014).
criminal venture with full knowledge of the circumstances involved—even if the actor does not
agree with all aspects of that criminal venture—is sufficient to establish aiding and abetting
liability. 22
For instance, a practitioner who provides members of the forum with technical assistance
regarding malware knowing the advice will help them breach a network could violate the federal
criminal aiding and abetting statute, if the forum members execute their plan–even if the
practitioner did not intend to help commit that particular crime. Moreover, even if the
practitioner does not intend to aid the commission of a crime and ultimately is not charged with
committing a crime, such assistance might bring
unwanted and costly investigative scrutiny.
Best Practices II
Information about an ongoing or
impending computer crime uncovered
during intelligence gathering activities
should be promptly reported to law
enforcement through contacts—ideally
already established— at the local FBI
field office or Cyber Task Force and the
local U.S. Secret Service field office or
Electronic Crimes Task Force (ECTFs).
In some criminal forums, participants
may be required to establish their
criminal bona fides by assisting in a
criminal act or furnishing proof that they
have committed a prior offense. Do not
provide any valid, useful information
that can be used to facilitate a crime.
Doing so could result in civil or criminal
Involve your legal department in
operational planning. They may be able
to spot legal issues and provide guidance
that can avoid legal problems.
A practitioner must also avoid violating the
federal conspiracy statutes. 23 The conspiracy
statutes apply when an individual enters into an
agreement with at least one other person to commit
a federal crime; some statutes also have as an
element that someone make any overt act in
furtherance of that crime. 24 So, even if providing
information to an individual on a forum is not
itself a federal criminal offense, the practitioner
could still have engaged in a criminal conspiracy,
if the practitioner agreed that a crime would occur,
regardless of whether it actually happens or not. 25
The general federal conspiracy statute requires
some member of the conspiracy to act in
furtherance of the conspiracy, but that act need not
itself be a crime, nor must the act be performed by
the person charged. 26 The CFAA has its own
conspiracy provision that only requires an
agreement to commit a violation of the CFAA
without the commission of any overt acts in
furtherance of the conspiracy. 27 Even so, if the
practitioner does not intend to commit an offense
See id. at 78.
18 U.S.C. § 371. The federal conspiracy statute makes it a crime for “two or more persons [to] conspire either to
commit any offense against the United States, or to defraud the United States, or any agency thereof in any manner
or for any purpose, and one or more of such persons do any act to effect the object of the conspiracy….” Id.
Braverman v. United States, 317 U.S. 49, 53 (1942).
See Ocasio v. United States, 136 S. Ct. 1423, 1432 (2016) (“It is sufficient to prove that the conspirators agreed
that the underlying crime be committed by a member of the conspiracy who was capable of committing it. In other
words, each conspirator must have specifically intended that some conspirator commit each element of the
substantive offense.”).
See Braverman, 317 U.S. at 53 (“The overt act, without proof of which a charge of conspiracy cannot be
submitted to the jury, may be that of only a single one of the conspirators and need not be itself a crime.”).
See 18 U.S.C. § 1030(b).
and has not in fact agreed with another party to achieve a criminal objective, the practitioner has
not participated in a criminal conspiracy under federal law. 28
In sum, a security practitioner should take care to avoid taking any action that would
assist others in the commission of a crime or agreeing that a crime should occur. Practitioners
engaged in these sorts of intelligence gathering activities should remain mindful that their
communications and actions are occurring in the context of an online site that exists to facilitate
criminal conduct and with individuals who may be planning to commit crimes. The practitioner
should avoid providing any true, accurate, or useful information that could advance such crimes.
In the event the practitioner becomes the target of a federal criminal investigation,
investigators will likely attempt to determine intent, in part, using extrinsic and circumstantial
evidence. Consequently, as suggested above, a practitioner and his or her employer should
maintain records that document the practitioner’s actions on the forums and the legitimate
business purpose for the practitioner’s activities so they can establish a legitimate motive and the
steps taken to avoid furthering illegal activities.
IV. Purchasing Stolen Data and Vulnerabilities for Cybersecurity Purposes
Some cybersecurity firms monitor Dark Markets for specific types of information as a
service to their customers. They may search for customer records or other types of sensitive
customer data being offered for sale, because the sale of such information in Dark Markets can
be a sign of a previously undetected data breach. They may also search for malware or security
vulnerabilities that target their customers’ networks or products, which may indicate that a
customer’s data and assets are ripe for exploitation. When these types of information are
discovered for sale online, a cybersecurity organization may attempt to purchase them or broker
a deal with the seller for their removal from a Dark Market.
Negotiating with anonymous parties engaged in selling stolen property or security
vulnerabilities on the Dark Web creates substantial risk of producing an array of undesirable
outcomes: the seller may take the purchaser’s payment without producing the promised data;
may breach the agreement by selling copies of the data to others; may not have possession or
control of all copies of the stolen data and, therefore, be unable to stop it from being further
disseminated; may use the proceeds to fund more crimes; or may even produce a trojanized
version of the data or vulnerability intended to compromise the purchaser’s systems. These risks
are compounded by the fact that a merchant selling illicit goods may anticipate that an
organization cheated out of its money after striking a deal with a Dark Market merchant will be
reluctant to report the incident to the authorities.
An organization that is swindled out of its money by a Dark Market merchant is also
likely to have little legal recourse because the seller will often be anonymous; located in a
country beyond the reach of U.S. courts; and/or was paid using an untraceable, irrevocable
United States v. Mahkimetas, 991 F.2d 379, 383 (7th Cir.1993) (A federal conspiracy requires an agreement
among individuals who intend to carry out the agreed-upon criminal act).
payment method. For all of these reasons, organizations should be wary of attempting to obtain
stolen data and security vulnerabilities in this manner.
Still, some organizations may be willing to assume these risks because, on balance, they
anticipate that there will be commensurate benefits. For instance, they may only seek to obtain a
copy of their stolen data so they can assess the nature and scope of a previously undetected data
breach and patch their networks to avoid further loss. Also, cybersecurity firms may be able to
use the stolen information to create intelligence reporting that others can use to protect their
networks better.
Setting aside questions about effectiveness and practicality, purchasing one’s own stolen
data—or, in the case of a cybersecurity firm, the data of a party that authorizes the purchase of its
stolen data—raises legal concerns that warrant consideration. At the outset, federal prosecutors
have not typically brought charges against parties who merely attempt to purchase their own
stolen data or buy a security vulnerability. However, a party engaged in those activities faces
legal risks discussed below that should be considered.
A. Scenario 1: Purchasing Stolen Data
The scenarios in this section focus on different aspects of purchasing stolen data, each of
which can have an impact on the legal analysis:
Whether the purchaser is the legitimate owner of the data: Is the stolen data being
purchased by the data owner or the data owner’s authorized agent?
The type of data being sold: Is the stolen data the type of information whose transfer or
possession is prohibited by federal law (e.g., stolen credit card information or trade
The identity of the seller: Is the seller someone with whom federal law prohibits the data
owner from transacting business?
Each of the scenarios below uses the same assumptions discussed in the intelligence
gathering scenarios discussed above: i.e., assumptions about the security practitioners, the nature
of the forums accessed, and the means of accessing such forums. 29 However, the discussion here
focuses on practitioners who discover data for sale that appears to belong to their cybersecurity
company’s customers. In these hypothetical cases, the practitioners contact the seller as
instructed on the Dark Web site and, with the customer’s authorization, offers to purchase the
data. These hypotheticals also assume that payment is made and the seller produces the data as
agreed. 30
1. The Ownership of the Data
As mentioned above, purchasing one’s own stolen data typically poses little risk of
federal prosecution. However, while reviewing the stolen data, the purchaser discovers that the
See infra pp. 2-4.
For the sake of this legal analysis, it is necessary to presume that the transaction is successful. For the reasons
outlined above, there are no guarantees that an effort to purchase stolen goods online will produce the desired
tranche of data produced by the Dark Market seller includes data that belongs to other
companies. It turns out, the purchaser’s stolen data is commingled with data that was likely
stolen from other data breach victims.
If the purchaser did not know, and had no reason to know, that the stolen data being
bought belonged to others, there is little chance of facing criminal prosecution for purchasing it.
Subject to the exceptions discussed below, criminal liability for possessing or handling stolen
data generally requires the intent to use the data in an unlawful manner, which this document
presumes the practitioner lacks. For instance, the access device fraud statute requires an intent to
defraud and the theft of trade secrets statute requires an intent to convert the information to the
economic benefit of anyone other than its owner. 31
But purchasing another party’s stolen information without permission or authority can
raise questions about the purchaser’s intent that invite investigative scrutiny to determine the
purchaser’s motive. To manage this risk, upon recognizing that the purchased data contains
information that it does not have the right to possess, the purchaser should promptly sequester it
and not further access, review, or use it. The purchaser should then either immediately contact
law enforcement and provide it with the data and/or inform the actual data owner, to the extent it
can be determined, that it is in possession of its data. These steps will help demonstrate the lack
of any criminal intent that would merit criminal prosecution. When contacting someone whose
stolen data has ended up in your possession, avoid communicating in a manner that could be
misconstrued to be an extortionate demand. 32
2. The Nature of the Data
The type of stolen data being sold will also determine whether any criminal statutes
prohibit it from being purchased. As noted above, many of the federal criminal statutes
associated with the type of stolen data that tends to be sold in Dark Markets—e.g., passwords,
account numbers, and other personally identifiable information—only apply if there is intent to
further another crime: for instance, an intent to use the information to defraud. 33 For this reason,
a purchaser of the stolen data who lacks a criminal motive is unlikely to face prosecution under
those statutes.
While unwittingly purchasing another party’s stolen information is also typically unlikely
to pose a risk of criminal liability, knowingly purchasing another party’s stolen data without that
party’s authorization can pose some legal risk. It is much more likely to raise questions about
the purchaser’s motives and result in scrutiny from law enforcement and the legitimate data
owner, particularly if a trade secret is involved. 34
See 18 U.S.C. §§ 1029(a)(1)-(8), (10); 18 U.S.C. § 1832(a).
A party whose stolen data has ended up in the possession of a cybersecurity practitioner could interpret a
practitioner’s effort to impose conditions on the return of the stolen data to be an extortionate demand. Practitioners
should avoid making the return of stolen data dependent on purchasing the practitioner’s services or satisfying a
demand for anything else of value.
See 18 U.S.C. §§ 1029(a)(1)-(8), (10).
“[T]he term “trade secret” means all forms and types of financial, business, scientific, technical, economic, or
engineering information, including patterns, plans, compilations, program devices, formulas, designs, prototypes,
Accidentally purchasing a trade secret would not violate the Theft of Trade Secrets Act
(the Act), but receiving, buying, or possessing a trade secret 35 knowing that it was stolen or
obtained without authorization can violate it, if other elements of the statute are met. The Act
prohibits the transfer or other handling of a trade secret that is converted to the benefit of anyone
other than the rightful trade secret owner, intending or knowing that doing so would injure the
owner of the trade secret. 36 So, any use of that information would merit examination by the
authorities or the trade secret owner. The Act includes a civil cause of action, so a trade secret
owner could pursue civil action, even if a criminal prosecution is declined.
As recommended above, the best means of mitigating the risk of being investigated and
prosecuted for unintentionally purchasing stolen data that belongs to others—other than by
ensuring the seller does not produce material that does not belong to the purchaser—is by
promptly contacting and surrendering such extraneous data to law enforcement and/or the
rightful data owner. Doing so will minimize the risk that a purchaser’s unintended possession of
such data will be misinterpreted as a criminal act and could help mitigate civil liability.
3. The Nature of the Seller
Engaging in a financial transaction with certain individuals or organizations can violate
the law. For instance, 18 U.S.C. § 2339B prohibits providing material support, or attempting or
conspiring to provide material support, to a group that has been designated a foreign terrorist
organization. 37 A violation of section 2339B requires a subject to know about the organization’s
connection to terrorism. It does not, however, require that the subject have the specific intent to
further the organization’s terrorist activities. 38 Therefore, if a practitioner bought the stolen data
knowing the seller was a member of such a foreign terrorism group, the practitioner would
violate section 2339B.
Under the International Emergency Economic Powers Act (IEEPA), 39 a similar
prohibition would bar the purchaser from buying the stolen data from certain individuals or
methods, techniques, processes, procedures, programs, or codes, whether tangible or intangible, and whether or how
stored, compiled, or memorialized physically, electronically, graphically, photographically, or in writing if—
(A) the owner thereof has taken reasonable measures to keep such information secret; and
(B) the information derives independent economic value, actual or potential, from not being generally
known to, and not being readily ascertainable through proper means by, another person who can obtain
economic value from the disclosure or use of the information.”
18 U.S.C. § 1839(3).
18 U.S.C. § 1832(a)(3).
Section 1832(a)(2) prohibits unauthorized copying, duplication, sketching, drawing, uploading, altering,
destroying, photocopying, replication, transmission, delivery, sending, mailing, communicating, or conveying a
trade secret to the economic benefit of anyone other than the owner thereof, and intending or knowing that the doing
so will injure any owner of that trade secret.
Liability under section 2339B attaches when a person has knowledge that an organization has been designated a
terrorist organization under section 219 of the Immigration and Nationality Act, that the organization has engaged or
engages in terrorist activity as defined in section 212(a)(3)(B) of the Immigration and Nationality Act, or that the
organization has engaged or engages in terrorism as defined in section 140(d)(2) of the Foreign Relations
Authorization Act.
Holder v. Humanitarian Law Proj., 561 US 1, 17 (2010).
50 U.S.C. § 1705.
entities designated by the U.S. Government. In the last several years, the U.S. Government has
issued executive orders sanctioning Iranian, North Korean, and Russian individuals and entities
for national security reasons, including cyber-related misconduct. 40 These executive orders and
regulations, among other things, prohibit any trade or economic transaction with designated
targets. Among other things, IEEPA criminalizes willful violations of these executive orders and
regulations and their prohibitions on economic and trade transactions.
The Department of Justice’s National Security Division prosecutes criminal violations of
IEEPA. IEEPA’s willfulness standard would pose significant barriers for criminally prosecuting
a practitioner under IEEPA based on the facts of the scenario. Because the identity of anyone
selling stolen data in a Dark Market is likely to be masked by a pseudonymous online persona, it
is unlikely that the true identity of the seller of stolen data will be known or knowable to a buyer.
Where a buyer does not know the identity of the seller and, therefore, does not know the buyer is
the subject of economic or trade sanctions, a criminal prosecution requiring proof of willful
intent might not be possible to bring. The National Security Division’s Counterintelligence and
Export Control Section can be reached at (202) 233-0986.
Civil liability, however, can also be imposed under IEEPA. The U.S. Department of the
Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) is responsible for civil enforcement of U.S.
economic and trade sanctions regimes. OFAC administers and enforces economic and trade
sanctions based on U.S. foreign policy and national security goals. Civil enforcement of IEEPA
may be imposed on the basis of “strict liability,” meaning a party could be civilly liable even if it
did not know it was engaging in a transaction with an individual or entity that was the subject of
trade or economic sanctions. Unauthorized transactions under OFAC’s IEEPA-administered
regulations may result in a civil monetary penalty. The statutory maximum civil penalties are
adjusted annually for inflation. 41
Companies should make every effort to ensure they are not dealing with an individual or
entity subject to economic or trade sanctions. OFAC encourages companies to implement a riskbased compliance program to mitigate the risks of dealing with persons, regions, or countries
subject to economic or trade sanctions prohibitions. To assist the public, OFAC published on its
website a document, A Framework for OFAC Compliance Commitments, intended to provide
organizations with a framework for the five essential components of a risk-based sanctions
compliance program.
Having a reasonable compliance program (or “rules of engagement”) in place that
includes measures for checking whether foreign parties with whom business is transacted are
subject to economic and trade sanctions is a prudent way of avoiding criminal liability under
IEEPA and may mitigate the likelihood of civil liability as well. OFAC also furnishes tools to
help identify Specially Designated Nationals and Blocked Persons who are subject to U.S.
See, e.g., Blocking the Property of Certain Persons Engaged in Significant Malicious Cyber-Enabled Activities,
Exec. Order No. 13694, 80 Fed. Reg. 18077 (April 1, 2015).
The statutory maximum is set by the Federal Civil Penalties Inflation Adjustment Act Improvements Act of 2015,
Sec. 701 of Public Law 114-74.
sanctions, such as the Sanctions List Search 42 and the Resource Center web pages for Sanctions
Programs and Country Information. 43 These resources may be consulted to mitigate exposure to
civil or criminal liability under IEEPA and other sanctions-related statutes. The public is also
encouraged to review the Economic Sanctions Enforcement Guidelines, 31 C.F.R. part 501
Appendix A, for more information regarding OFAC’s enforcement of U.S. economic sanctions,
including OFAC’s voluntary self-disclosure program and the factors OFAC generally considers
when determining an appropriate response to apparent violations. 44
The public can contact OFAC directly by calling the OFAC Hotline toll free at 1(800)
540-6322 or locally at (202) 622-2490 or by sending an email to ofac_feedback@treasury.gov.
Additionally, requests for specific licenses may be submitted online at OFAC’s website at
www.treasury.gov/ofac. Inquiries regarding pending license requests may be made at (202) 6222480.
Scenario 2: Purchasing Vulnerabilities
If, while gathering cyber threat intelligence in Dark Markets, a practitioner discovers
security vulnerabilities being offered for sale, the practitioner may decide to purchase them so
that they may be disclosed to the relevant vendor or develop a patch to prevent the vulnerabilities
from being exploited, particularly if the vulnerabilities target a practitioner’s customers. Some
practitioners also search for new variants of malware being sold in Dark Markets so they can be
analyzed and signatures can be developed for use in virus scanning products.
While security vulnerabilities and malware are frequently used to commit computer
crimes and it is a federal crime when they are sold in support of criminal conduct, the mere
purchase of security vulnerabilities or malware is not generally illegal, standing alone and
without any criminal intent. There are, however, two exceptions that warrant mention. First, the
possession or sale of software designed to intercept electronic communications surreptitiously
may violate the Wiretap Act, which prohibits the intentional possession of any “electronic,
mechanical, or other device knowing or having reason to know that the design of such device
renders it primarily useful for the purpose of the surreptitious interception of wire, oral, or
electronic communications.” 45 Certain malware designed to intercept electronic communications
may fall within this definition and, therefore, be unlawful to possess. 46 The best way of
minimizing legal risk if purchasing malware that may fall under section 2512 is to coordinate
with law enforcement before any transaction occurs.
Available at https://sanctionssearch.ofac.treas.gov/
Available at https://www.treasury.gov/resource-center/sanctions/Programs/Pages/Programs.aspx and
Available at https://www.ecfr.gov/cgi-bin/textidx?SID=093f4d5ea37955ea6a767ad337f4f75d&mc=true&tpl=/ecfrbrowse/Title31/31cfr501_main_02.tpl
18 U.S.C. § 2512(1)(b)
See, e.g., Luis v. Zang, 833 F.3d 619, 635 (6th Cir. 2016) (Upholding civil claim under section 2512 against
manufacturer of software used to intercept online communications surreptitiously and husband who used the
software to capture wife’s communications). For more information about the application of the Wiretap Act, consult
prior CCIPS publications on computer crime. See, e.g., U.S. Department of Justice Office of Legal Education,
Prosecuting Computer Crimes 59-72 (2009).
The second exception is when the purchase is prohibited because the seller is a
designated foreign terrorist organization or an individual or entity that is subject to economic or
trade sanctions under IEEPA. These concerns are the same ones that arise when purchasing
stolen data. See the discussion above explaining legal liability under an authority such as IEEPA
and how best to address it.
V. Conclusion
This paper is intended to help private sector cybersecurity practitioners by identifying
steps they can take and issues they should consider to avoid violating federal criminal law while
conducting cybersecurity activities involving criminal forums. When properly conducted, such
activities can improve organizations’ cybersecurity readiness and help prepare them to respond
to cybersecurity threats effectively and lawfully.
How to Contact Law Enforcement
If you have a pre-established relationship with your local FBI or U.S. Secret Service field
office, notify your usual point of contact of your plans to conduct intelligence gathering
and recovery of stolen data or report any information concerning an impending, ongoing,
or past crime.
Find your local FBI or U.S. Secret Service field office by visiting:
For additional information and resources, please visit:

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