In a world beset with war, hunger, crime, and injustice, there are far worse problems than the act of electronic vandalism that plagued thousands of computers across the country this week.
Even so, the episode deserves close and continuing scrutiny because it's the most serious one yet, because the problem could get much worse as one sick prank gives ideas to other immature minds, and because it shows just how vulnerable even the most sophisticated forms of modern technology can be.We're referring to the episode in which a computer "virus" infected a network linking some 50,000 computers in major universities and scientific centers around the country, including a NASA and nuclear weapons lab and other federal research facilities.
A computer "virus" is a tiny program introduced clandestinely into a data processing system. In its most vicious forms, such a "virus" can destroy data or cripple a computer.
Though it was the most extensive case of electronic vandalism so far, this week's "virus" attack could have been much worse. While no data was destroyed, the attack did delay some important research. Even though there was no permanent damage or breaches of national security, the potential for such harm is abundantly clear.
Under the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act, unauthorized access to federal government computers is a crime. Clearly, the law is not a sufficiently effective deterrent.
As computer technology advances, one of its challenges will be to produce better methods of protecting itself from anti-social tampering. But it's a well-known fact of life that the safeguards produced by one inventive person can be circumvented by someone even more ingenious.
If there's a lesson in this week's computer "virus" attack, perhaps it's that better laws and better technology are still no substitute for better people - meaning people with a keener sense of social responsibility.