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Rogue Computer Programs - Viruses, Worms, Trojan Horses and Time Bombs: Prank, Prowess, Protection or Prosecution?

Anne Branscomb
Harward University, Program on Information Resources Policy, I-89-3
September 1989

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In the late 1980's the computer world has awakened to a new threat to its health - an infestation of various maladies which collectively, and sometimes erroneously, have been called "computer viruses". ADAPSO, the software trade organization, reported a 10-fold increase in viral infections from 3000 m the first two months of 1988 to 30,000 reported during the last two months of the same year.

Lawyers, legislators, computer manufacturers, software programmers, and security experts are equally concerned whether or not the people responsible for these various electronic malfunctions can be or should be prosecuted under existing statutes. Several of the most recent incidents include the INTERNET worm, Aldus peace virus, the Pakistani Brain, and the Burleson Revenge. The motives of the perpetrators include pranks, improvement of protection, probative or punitive, prowess, peeping, philosophy, potential sabotage, poverty, and power.

A range of existing state and federal statutes might cover these sets of facts, and additional bills are pending in Congress and in several state legislatures in the spring of 1989.

It is difficult to determine strategies since it cannot be ascertained whether the rogue programs are a transient problem which will go away as "hackers" develop a different ethical standard, whether they are a drop in the bucket of problems which may arise as the criminally motivated become more computer literate, or whether they are like the common cold, afflictions which come with the use of computers with which we must learn to live.

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