Devil's Advocate: Should we lock up virus writers?

Seems a little severe...

Seems a little severe...

Sending virus writers to jail is unlikely to stop their behaviour, says Martin Brampton. And shouldn't our morally ambivalent society and the creators of vulnerable systems share the blame?

Some people want to see more virus writers sent to jail for long periods. The damage they cause can be substantial. But are they really such a threat to society that we should feel justified in locking them up?

Software viruses were originally created almost by accident. The idea of creating small pieces of software that could move from one computer to another is as old as networking itself. Perhaps it was irresponsible to experiment with such schemes and the early results produced surprisingly large problems.

Deliberate attempts to cause widespread damage followed. But, as one might expect, they came largely from the sector of society that causes by far the most disruption - young males. The vast majority of crime is committed by exactly this group. For that matter, armies consist mainly of precisely the same kind of people.

So we must accept it is part of the natural order of things that young men will look for ways to exercise their aggression, regardless of the constraints that society seeks to impose. Moreover, we live in an environment that is ambivalent about rules of behaviour. David Beckham merely reflected broader trends when he calculated that a deliberate foul was justified if negative consequences could be evaded.

Time and time again, financial institutions are being found guilty of deceiving their customers by selling inappropriate products or offering self-interested advice. This is not something that is confined to peripheral organisations run by mavericks. The companies that have rulings against them by regulators are frequently leaders in national or even global markets.

Headline cases such as Enron look to be only the tip of an iceberg. We know that quoted companies, taken as a whole, make public statements about their profits that cannot be sustained when the final analysis is made. Corporate executives talk about 'playing hardball' when they mean calculated breaches of rules that are deemed to bring more benefit than damage.

These factors combine with the fact we have created systems that are extraordinarily vulnerable. Huge networks have been built involving remarkable technical achievements. But little thought has gone into how they will be used when they embrace many different organisations and individuals.

The hazards are not confined to deliberate yet largely pointless damage. When interfaces are built between many commercial organisations with different goals, we have little understanding of how they will work. It is all too easy to assume that everyone will cooperate and comply with the letter and the spirit of the rules. Yet that is scarcely likely, given the general environment.

Pursuing the metaphor that has persuaded us to call malicious software that spreads itself a virus, what other parallels should we notice? In natural situations, we know the more uniform the characteristics of a population, the more vulnerable it is to diseases, including those carried by viruses. Yet the digital systems we build are substantially lacking in the kind of variety that would limit the spread of unwanted software.

It was almost certainly inevitable that as we constructed networks that linked vast numbers of individuals and organisations, we would find all the ills that afflict life in general. If it took virus writers to make us realise that, then perhaps our focus should not be simply their punishment. We need to be thinking a great deal more seriously about the kinds of network that will work successfully on a global scale.

There has never been a time when punishment, however severe, has eliminated behaviours that were seen as anti-social. Likewise, there is no reason to believe large computer networks can be freed of all ills. Computers are not independent mechanisms, they are tools that implement the intentions of human beings. Society is extremely complex but if we seek to make improvements, there is no substitute for careful thought.