Issue 225, September 3, 2001  

Cyberjustice: The Next Frontier

By Stephen Lawton

      The court found the defendants guilty. No tears were shed when the villains were brought before the bar. The judge pronounced sentence, banged his gavel and the criminals were carted off to cyberspace prison. The sentence: financial responsibility for partaking in their given hobby of creating and spreading computer worms and viruses.
      Wouldn't it be nice if justice were this simple? What these folks are doing is a combination of theft (of services, time and content) and destruction of personal property, including your intellectual property. This isn't a freedom of speech issue.
       Today, there are people who call themselves "ethical hackers" who, for a price, will work with a company to hack their systems. Others will hack a system without damaging it to show its vulnerabilities.
       While I don't agree with this latter approach, at least these hackers can try make some type of ethical argument. Virus writers cannot. There is no reason to create a virus other than to cause harm.
       So how do you handle such thugs? There are several actions that lawmakers can take, most of which would either tread heavily on personal privacy rights or simply violate the Bill of Rights.
       But David Farber, professor of telecommunications at the University of Pennsylvania, former chief technologist at the Federal Communications Commission and all-round technology guru, believes we can use an existing law to punish the authors of worms, viruses and Trojan horses. Just as we hold individuals - or their parents in the cases of minors - financially liable for damage they cause from acts such as arson, we need to hold virus writers financially liable. I agree.
       This could be a deterrent to some of the so-called "script kiddies" - those who create viruses using off-the-shelf software. It certainly won't be a deterrent to those determined to cause havoc, but then, nothing will.
       But what about non-U.S. citizens? Other countries have similar, sometimes far more serious, penalties that address personal liability crimes. I don't advocate chopping off the hands of virus writers, but taking a hefty slice of their disposable income to pay back those with financial losses seems reasonable. And, as is done today in trade negotiations, the U.S. government could put pressure on those countries that don't implement a similar regulation. Another option: Get the U.N. or another international organization to put its weight behind such a move. The bottom line: Virus writers must be stopped.
       Farber warns against holding the ISP liable and I agree. The ISP is a common carrier - hold it liable and it will protect itself: reading or scanning each message it transmits.
       No, what we need is to hit the virus writers where it hurts most - in the wallet. And if they can't pay today, just take a bit out of every paycheck for the rest of their lives!

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