Hail, Don’t Jail, the Genius Behind the Virus : Spiritual Descendant of ‘60s Phone Phreaks Deserves a Chance to Go Straight

IRA FLATOW <i> is author of "Rainbows, Curveballs and Other Wonders of the Natural World Explained" and is a frequent contributor to National Public Radio</i>

Unless you’ve been on Mars, you’ve probably seen enough of the headlines by now: “Boy genius fools with computer and fouls up the system. Bored overachiever overcomes the defenses of a whole computer network and creates loads of paper work.”

This is news? It’s been going on for years. Almost a decade ago, when we first heard about computer hackers, it truly was shocking to learn how easily they could break into a supposedly secure computer system, tour the database, benignly leave a message or delete and trash as they went along.

I once watched one friendly hacker demonstrate how easy it was to do. From the convenience of my private phone, he entered the computer system of a Fortune 500 company faster than I today could dial Compuserve, the electronic information service. Boy, was I surprised. But not now.

Even 20 years ago, before the advent of personal computers, these kids were making headlines with an older technology: telephones. The idea was not to tie up the phone lines or to do physical damage to the system but to merely cheat the big, rich phone company out of a dime. Actually more than a dime, big bucks.


With $1.98 worth of Radio Shack parts, they invented “blue boxes” that would trick Ma Bell’s circuits into thinking the caller’s hand set was off the hook. Then, protected by this synthetic busy signal, one could dial around the world in an orgy of free long distance phone calls.

This underground phone system was the rage at college campuses where all the right ingredients came together: bored electronic engineering majors and lonely college students looking to call their girlfriends Saturday night. The newspapers were filled with stories of “phone phreaks” (today’s equivalent of hackers) being rooted out and arrested. Instead of prosecution, they were usually offered a job in the phone company.

When my personal phone freak showed me how easily it could be done with just a couple of cheap parts, boy, was I surprised--again. (Now I see him quoted daily in the newspapers. He’s gone straight and become one of the computer sleuths who helped track down the recent Arpanet virus.) But I’m not surprised now.

What I can’t understand is why, with such a history of technology tampering, we continue to be amazed when some new kid on the block adds his name to the hacker hall of fame? Computer mischief is as common as a cosmonaut in space and normally commands as much attention.


What caused such attention this time was the thought that the country’s military computer network was compromised. When in reality, this system (Arpanet) did not contain any secret government files and had terminals all over the country at major universities and research centers where, once again, the right ingredients for mischief always exist.

Of course, it could have been worse. The damage could have been deliberate and the files of thousands of users wiped out by the virus (technically speaking, it was really a “worm,” or “Trojan horse” but that’s another story).

This is the good news, and it should wake us up to the reality of the vulnerability of computer systems to clandestine and deliberate damage. Computer experts know that it’s not the hardware we really need be concerned with but the software.

That’s why, politics aside, so many computer scientists believe that “Star Wars” can’t work. The Star Wars computer program would be millions of lines long. If you printed it out, it would stretch about 30 miles.

All it takes to sabotage this megamonster is for one of the thousands of programmers to slip a virus into the program. Imagine what havoc that could cause. And we wouldn’t know about it until it was asked to shoot down enemy missiles. Just the possibility of sabotage is good enough for international blackmail.

The bad news about this latest event is the chilling effect that it might have on people who’ve just begun to test the computing waters. It’s taken more than 10 years for the personal computer industry to reach the point where users are beginning to feel at ease with their computers. And vice versa.

In this post-Macintosh era, PCs are finally beginning to become user friendly. Almost anyone can learn to use, and perhaps enjoy, a computer.

Some banks are virtually giving terminals away to their customers in an effort to encourage them to bank from the convenience of their homes or offices. Giants such as Tandy Corp., and even Sears, Roebuck & Co., are opening up new information-sharing systems at rock-bottom prices. Electronic mail, data sent by phone line, is changing the way we do paper work.


However, in the wake of this latest computer flap, businesses may be forced to reexamine the idea of making their computers easy to access. Banks, on-line database services and anyone who buys and sells computer time must perceive that along with convenience and friendliness comes a threat: the possibility that behind every user lurks a potential computer vandal.

Computer experts know that each time a terminal meets phone line, each time a user logs on to a mainframe or PC, there’s the possibility for damage. Any terminal is a potential port of call for a computer virus. (This latest virus was carried from computer to computer by electronic mail.)

It would be a shame if this breach of security turned the clocks backward and made it harder for all of us to become computer literate. The learning curve is slippery enough without having to go through four or five levels of security, two or three passwords and an ID code 20 numbers long.

Experts are already finding the silver lining to the incident. They believe that the virus embodies a new kind of software, a very powerful tool that when used properly can actually enhance a computer network, not shut it down.

So let’s do what the phone company used to do. Instead of a jail sentence, let’s give Robert T. Morris Jr. a job. Let’s draw misguided talent and enthusiasm away from the dark side and give him the same chance we used to give his predecessors a generation ago.