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Nmap Network Scanning

Legal Issues

When used properly, Nmap helps protect your network from invaders. But when used improperly, Nmap can (in rare cases) get you sued, fired, expelled, jailed, or banned by your ISP. Reduce your risk by reading this legal guide before launching Nmap.

Is Unauthorized Port Scanning a Crime?

The legal ramifications of scanning networks with Nmap are complex and so controversial that third-party organizations have even printed T-shirts and bumper stickers promulgating opinions on the matter[6], as shown in Figure 1.3. The topic also draws many passionate but often unproductive debates and flame wars. If you ever participate in such discussions, try to avoid the overused and ill-fitting analogies to knocking on someone's home door or testing whether his door and windows are locked.

Figure 1.3. Strong opinions on port scanning legality and morality

Strong opinions on port scanning legality and morality

While I agree with the sentiment that port scanning should not be illegal, it is rarely wise to take legal advice from a T-shirt. Indeed, taking it from a software engineer and author is only slightly better. Speak to a competent lawyer within your jurisdiction for a better understanding of how the law applies to your particular situation. With that important disclaimer out of the way, I'll provide some general information that may prove helpful.

The best way to avoid controversy when using Nmap is to always secure written authorization from the target network representatives before initiating any scanning. There is still a chance that your ISP will give you trouble if they notice it (or if the target administrators accidentally send them an abuse report), but this is usually easy to resolve. When you are performing a penetration test, this authorization should be in the Statement of Work. When testing your own company, make certain that this activity clearly falls within your job description. Security consultants should be familiar with the excellent Open Source Security Testing Methodology Manual (OSSTMM), which provides best practices for these situations.

While civil and (especially) criminal court cases are the nightmare scenario for Nmap users, these are very rare. After all, no United States federal laws explicitly criminalize port scanning. A much more frequent occurrence is that the target network will notice a scan and send a complaint to the network service provider where the scan initiated (your ISP). Most network administrators do not seem to care or notice the many scans bouncing off their networks daily, but a few complain. The scan source ISP may track down the user corresponding to the reported IP address and time, then chide the user or even kick him off the service. Port scanning without authorization is sometimes against the provider's acceptable use policy (AUP). For example, the AUP for the huge cable-modem ISP Comcast says:

Network probing or port scanning tools are only permitted when used in conjunction with a residential home network, or if explicitly authorized by the destination host and/or network. Unauthorized port scanning, for any reason, is strictly prohibited.

Even if an ISP does not explicitly ban unauthorized port scanning, they might claim that some anti-hacking provision applies. Of course this does not make port scanning illegal. Many perfectly legal and (in the United States) constitutionally protected activities are banned by ISPs. For example, the AUP quoted above also prohibits users from transmitting, storing, or posting any information or material which a reasonable person could deem to be objectionable, offensive, indecent, pornographic, ... embarrassing, distressing, vulgar, hateful, racially or ethnically offensive, or otherwise inappropriate, regardless of whether this material or its dissemination is unlawful. In other words, some ISPs ban any behavior that could possibly offend or annoy someone[7]. Indiscriminate scanning of other people's networks does have that potential. If you decide to perform such controversial scanning anyway, never do it from work, school, or any other service provider that has substantial control over your well-being. Use a commercial broadband or wireless provider instead. Losing your DSL connection and having to change providers is a slight nuisance, but it is immeasurably preferable to being expelled or fired.

While legal cases involving port scanning (without follow-up hacking attacks) are rare, they do happen. One of the most notable cases involved a man named Scott Moulton who had an ongoing consulting contract to maintain the Cherokee County, Georgia emergency 911 system. In December 1999, he was tasked with setting up a router connecting the Canton, Georgia Police Department with the E911 Center. Concerned that this might jeopardize the E911 Center security, Scott initiated some preliminary port scanning of the networks involved. In the process he scanned a Cherokee County web server that was owned and maintained by a competing consulting firm named VC3. They noticed the scan and emailed Scott, who replied that he worked for the 911 Center and was testing security. VC3 then reported the activity to the police. Scott lost his E911 maintenance contract and was arrested for allegedly violating the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act of America Section 1030(a)(5)(B). This act applies against anyone who intentionally accesses a protected computer without authorization, and as a result of such conduct, causes damage (and meets other requirements). The damage claimed by VC3 involved time spent investigating the port scan and related activity. Scott sued VC3 for defamation, and VC3 countersued for violation of the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act as well as the Georgia Computer Systems Protection Act.

The civil case against Scott was dismissed before trial, implying a complete lack of merit. The ruling made many Nmap users smile:

Court holds that plaintiff's act of conducting an unauthorized port scan and throughput test of defendant's servers does not constitute a violation of either the Georgia Computer Systems Protection Act or the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act.—Civ. Act. No. 1:00-CV-434-TWT (N.D. Ga. November 6, 2000)

This was an exciting victory in the civil case, but Scott still had the criminal charges pending. Fortunately he kept his spirits high, sending the following note to the nmap-hackers mailing list:

I am proud that I could be of some benefit to the computer society in defending and protecting the rights of specialists in the computer field, however it is EXTREMELY costly to support such an effort, of which I am not happy about. But I will continue to fight and prove that there is nothing illegal about port scanning especially when I was just doing my job.

Eventually, the criminal court came to the same conclusion and all charges were dropped. While Scott was vindicated in the end, he suffered six-figure legal bills and endured stressful years battling through the court system. The silver lining is that after spending so much time educating his lawyers about the technical issues involved, Scott started a successful forensics services company.

While the Moulton case sets a good example (if not legal precedent), different courts or situations could still lead to worse outcomes. Remember that many states have their own computer abuse laws, some of which can arguably make even pinging a remote machine without authorization illegal[8].

Laws in other nations obviously differ as well. For example, A 17-year-old youth was convicted in Finland of attempted computer intrusion for simply port scanning a bank. He was fined to cover the target's investigation expenses. The Moulton ruling might have differed if the VC3 machine had actually crashed and they were able to justify the $5,000 damage figure required by the act.

At the other extreme, an Israeli judge acquitted Avi Mizrahi in early 2004 for vulnerability scanning the Mossad secret service. Judge Abraham Tennenbaum even commended Avi in his ruling:

In a way, Internet surfers who check the vulnerabilities of Web sites are acting in the public good. If their intentions are not malicious and they do not cause any damage, they should even be praised.

In 2007 and 2008, broad new cybercrime laws took effect in Germany and England. These laws are meant to ban the distribution, use, and even possession of hacking tools. For example, the UK amendment to the Computer Misuse Act makes it illegal to supply or offer to supply [a program], believing that it is likely to be used to commit, or to assist in the commission of [a Computer Misuse Act violation]. These laws have already led some security tool authors to close shop or move their projects to other countries. The problem is that most security tools can be used by both ethical professionals (white-hats) to defend their networks and black-hats to attack. These dangerous laws are based on the tool author or user's intent, which is subjective and hard to divine. Nmap was designed to help secure the Internet, but I'd hate to be arrested and forced to defend my intentions to a judge and jury, especially in a foreign country like Germany where I don't even speak the language. These laws are unlikely to affect tools as widespread and popular as Nmap, but they have had a chilling effect on smaller tools and those which are more commonly abused by computer criminals (such as exploitation frameworks).

Regardless of the legal status of port scanning, ISP accounts will continue to be terminated if many complaints are generated. The best way to avoid ISP abuse reports or civil/criminal charges is to avoid annoying the target network administrators in the first place. Here are some practical suggestions:

  • Ensure that you have permission to scan. Probably at least 90% of network scanning is non-controversial. You are rarely badgered for scanning your own machine or the networks you administer. The controversy comes when scanning other networks. There are many reasons (good and bad) for doing this sort of network exploration. Perhaps you are scanning the other systems in your dorm or department to look for publicly shared files (FTP, SMB, WWW, etc.). Or maybe you are just trying to find the IP address of a certain printer. You might have scanned your favorite web site to see if they are offering any other services, or because you were curious what OS they run. Perhaps you are just trying to test connectivity, or maybe you wanted to do a quick security sanity check before handing off your credit card details to that e-commerce company. You might be conducting Internet research. Or are you performing initial reconnaissance in preparation for a break-in attempt? The remote administrators rarely know your true intentions, and do sometimes get suspicious. The best approach is to get permission first. I have seen a few people with non-administrative roles land in hot water after deciding to prove network insecurity by launching an intrusive scan of the entire company or campus. Administrators tend to be more cooperative when asked in advance than when woken up at 3:00 AM by an IDS alarm claiming they are under massive attack. So whenever possible, obtain written authorization before scanning a network. Adrian Lamo would probably have avoided jail if he had asked the New York Times to test their security rather than telling reporters about the flaws afterward. Unfortunately they might have said no. Be prepared for this answer.

  • Target your scan as tightly as possible. Any machine connected to the Internet is scanned regularly enough that most administrators ignore such Internet background noise. But scanning enough networks or executing very noisy/intrusive scans increases the probability of generating complaints. So if you are only looking for web servers, specify -p80 rather than scanning all 65,536 TCP ports on each machine. If you are only trying to find available hosts, do an Nmap ping scan rather than full port scan. Do not scan a CIDR /16 (65K hosts) when a /24 netblock suffices. The random scan mode now takes an argument specifying the number of hosts, rather than running forever. So consider -iR 1000 rather than -iR 10000 if the former is sufficient. Use the default timing (or even -T polite) rather than -T insane. Avoid noisy and relatively intrusive scans such as version detection (-sV) or NSE (--script). Similarly, a SYN scan (-sS) is quieter than a connect scan (-sT) while providing the same information and often being faster.

  • As noted previously, do not do anything controversial from your work or school connections. Even though your intentions may be good, you have too much to lose if someone in power (e.g. boss, dean) decides you are a malicious cracker. Do you really want to explain your actions to someone who may not even know what port scanning means? Spend $40 a month for a shell, cell data, or residential broadband account. Not only are the repercussions less severe if you offend someone from such an account, but target network administrators are less likely to even bother complaining to mass-market providers. Also read the relevant AUP and choose a provider accordingly. If your provider (like Comcast discussed above) bans any unauthorized port scanning and posting of offensive material, do not be surprised if you are kicked off for this activity. In general, the more you pay to a service provider the more accommodating they are. A T1 provider is highly unlikely to yank your connection without notice because someone reported being port scanned. A dialup or residential DSL/cable provider very well might. This can happen even when the scan was forged by someone else.

  • Nmap offers many options for stealthy scans, including source-IP spoofing, decoy scanning, and the more recent idle scan technique. These are discussed in the IDS evasion chapter. But remember that there is always a trade-off. You are harder to find if you launch scans from an open WAP far from your house, with 17 decoys, while doing subsequent probes through a chain of nine open proxies. But if anyone does track you down, they will be mighty suspicious of your intentions.

  • Always have a legitimate reason for performing scans. An offended administrator might write to you first (or your ISP might forward his complaint to you) expecting some sort of justification for the activity. In the Scott Moulton case discussed above, VC3 first emailed Scott to ask what was going on. If they had been satisfied with his answer, matters might have stopped there rather than escalating into civil and criminal litigation. When I scan large portions of the Internet for research purposes, I use a reverse-DNS name that describes the project and run a web server on that IP address with detailed information and opt-out instructions.

Also remember that ancillary and subsequent actions are often used as evidence of intent. A port scan by itself does not always signify an attack. A port scan followed closely by an IIS exploit, however, broadcasts the intention loud and clear. This is important because decisions to prosecute (or fire, expel, complain, etc.) are often based on the whole event and not just one component (such as a port scan).

One dramatic case involved a Canadian man named Walter Nowakowski, who was apparently the first person to be charged in Canada with theft of communications (Canadian Criminal Code Section S.342.1) for accessing the Internet through someone's unsecured Wi-Fi network. Thousands of Canadian war drivers do this every day, so why was he singled out? Because of ancillary actions and intent. He was allegedly caught driving the wrong way on a one-way street, naked from the waist down, with laptop in hand, while downloading child pornography through the aforementioned unsecured wireless access point. The police apparently considered his activity egregious enough that they brainstormed for relevant charges and tacked on theft of communications to the many child pornography-related charges.

Similarly, charges involving port scanning are usually reserved for the most egregious cases. Even when paranoid administrators notify the police that they have been scanned, prosecution (or any further action) is exceedingly rare. The fact that a 911 emergency service was involved is likely what motivated prosecutors in the Moulton case. Your author scanned millions of Internet hosts while writing this book and received fewer than ten complaints.

To summarize this whole section, the question of whether port scanning is legal does not have a simple answer. I cannot unequivocally say port scanning is never a crime, as much as I would like to. Laws differ dramatically between jurisdictions, and cases hinge on their particular details. Even when facts are nearly identical, different judges and prosecutors do not always interpret them the same way. I can only urge caution and reiterate the suggestions above.

For testing purposes, you have permission to scan the host scanme.nmap.org. You may have noticed it used in several examples already. Note that this permission only includes scanning with Nmap and not testing exploits or denial of service attacks. To conserve bandwidth, please do not initiate more than a dozen scans against that host per day. If this free scanning target service is abused, it will be taken down and Nmap will report Failed to resolve given hostname/IP: scanme.nmap.org.

Can Port Scanning Crash the Target Computer/Networks?

Nmap does not have any features designed to crash target networks. It usually tries to tread lightly. For example, Nmap detects dropped packets and slows down when they occur in order to avoid overloading the network. Nmap also does not send any corrupt packets. The IP, TCP, UDP, and ICMP headers are always appropriate, though the destination host is not necessarily expecting the packets. For these reasons, no application, host, or network component should ever crash based on an Nmap scan. If they do, that is a bug in the system which should be repaired by the vendor.

Reports of systems being crashed by Nmap are rare, but they do happen. Many of these systems were probably unstable in the first place and Nmap either pushed them over the top or they crashed at the same time as an Nmap scan by pure coincidence. In other cases, poorly written applications, TCP/IP stacks, and even operating systems have been demonstrated to crash reproducibly given a certain Nmap command. These are usually older legacy devices, as newer equipment is rarely released with these problems. Smart companies use Nmap and many other common network tools to test devices prior to shipment. Those who omit such pre-release testing often find out about the problem in early beta tests when a box is first deployed on the Internet. It rarely takes long for a given IP to be scanned as part of Internet background noise. Keeping systems and devices up-to-date with the latest vendor patches and firmware should reduce the susceptibility of your machines to these problems, while also improving the security and usability of your network.

In many cases, finding that a machine crashes from a certain scan is valuable information. After all, attackers can do anything Nmap can do by using Nmap itself or their own custom scripts. Devices should not crash from being scanned and if they do, vendors should be pressured to provide a patch. In some usage scenarios, detecting fragile machines by crashing them is undesirable. In those cases you may want to perform very light scanning to reduce the risk of adverse effects. Here are a few suggestions:

  • Use SYN scan (-sS) instead of connect scan (-sT). User-mode applications such as web servers can rarely even detect the former because it is all handled in kernel space and thus the services have no excuse to crash.

  • Version scanning (-sV) and some of our NSE scripts (-sC or --script) risk crashing poorly written applications. Similarly, some buggy operating systems have been reported to crash when OS fingerprinted (-O). Omit these options for particularly sensitive environments or where you do not need the results.

  • Using -T2 or slower (-T1, -T0) timing modes can reduce the chances that a port scan will harm a system, though they slow your scan dramatically. Older Linux boxes had an identd daemon that would block services temporarily if they were accessed too frequently. This could happen in a port scan, as well as during legitimate high-load situations. Slower timing might help here. These slow timing modes should only be used as a last resort because they can slow scans by an order of magnitude or more.

  • Limit the number of ports and machines scanned to the fewest that are required. Every machine scanned has a minuscule chance of crashing, and so cutting the number of machines down improves your odds. Reducing the number of ports scanned reduces the risks to end hosts as well as network devices. Many NAT/firewall devices keep a state entry for every port probe. Most of them expire old entries when the table fills up, but occasional (pathetic) implementations crash instead. Reducing the ports and hosts scanned reduces the number of state entries and thus might help those fragile and defective devices stay up.

Nmap Copyright

While Nmap is open source, it still has a copyright license that must be respected. As free software, Nmap also carries no warranty. These issues are covered in much greater detail in the section called “Legal Notices”. Companies wishing to bundle and use Nmap within proprietary software and appliances are especially encouraged to read this section so they don't inadvertently violate the Nmap license. Fortunately the Nmap Project sells commercial redistribution licenses for companies which need one.



[6] These are from the now-defunct AmericanSushi.Com.

[7] The Comcast AUP was improved after this was first published. The latest version is available at http://www.comcast.net/terms/use/

[8] An excellent paper on this topic by lawyer Ethan Preston is available at http://grove.ufl.edu/~techlaw/vol6/issue1/preston.html. He has also written an excellent paper relating to the legal risks of publishing security information and exploits at http://www.mcandl.com/computer-security.html.

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