Written by David Tebbutt, MacUser 11/90 item 02 - scanned

Ever since Robert Schifreen and Steve Gold hacked into Prince Philip's electronic mailbox on Prestel, the lawmakers have been anxious to make such pranks a criminal offence. Not surprisingly, hackers up and down the land have been outraged at this potential infringement of their liberties. Despite this, the lawmakers pressed on and the Computer Misuse Act has now entered the statute book.

What hackers and pranksters have conveniently ignored is that there is a much more sinister side to hacking. Increasingly, information is one of a company's most important assets. And, more and more, this is being stored in computers. Sometimes, the computer is even the creator of this information.

Cars are drawn on the screen and these illustrations are converted, by the computer, into realistic looking 3D prototypes. Financial information, conveniently consolidated for a group of companies, may end up at head office. Every detail of the company's financial state, good along with bad, is there for the taking.

Unlike the old days when industrial espionage involved a high degree of risk, it can now be done from the safety of a computer terminal miles from the source of the information. This is one of the reasons a Computer Misuse Act was introduced. It was not so much to penalise benign hackers, although they can cause havoc, but to allow the law to prosecute those who do it for gain or with malicious intent.

The act addresses another problem which seems to be permanently in the news - that of computer viruses. These unpleasant little programs can simply gobble up all your disk space (tee-hee) or cause the screen to dissolve (ho, ho, ho). Or, more seriously, they can corrupt programs and data (oh dear, oh dear). They can even crash entire networks and trigger electronic theft.

Certain people in this industry are very good at talking about the dangers of viruses - how widespread and damaging they are to companies, how important it is to buy anti-virus programs. The trouble is that these are the people who stand to gain most from a virus scare. If you are wondering why you have never heard of any huge virus-related losses, these same protective sellers will tell you that many companies will not admit to problems because it would cause a loss of confidence among their shareholders and customers.

What a cosy little argument. Put the fear of God into people, tell them you can solve all their problems for only a few hundred pounds, and when they ask for evidence, say "sorry, it's more than my job's worth to name names".

The trouble is these people, albeit with their vested interests, are right. Viruses do exist but no one really knows on what scale. Every few months, word gets out of a new virus, and all the prophylactic sellers issue updates of their programs. They are undoubtedly doing the public a great service, but no one enjoys coughing up for something which protects them from something which should not even exist in the first place.

Many users harbour a deep suspicion that the anti-virus software companies are the ones who create viruses in the first place. I know a couple of these folk quite well (Michael Skok at Symantec and Alan Solomon of S&S) and I am certain that neither would be party to the release of a new virus. Neither, however, has been averse to raising the virus to cult status. And, I suppose, who can blame them? They have so much to gain.

With the introduction of the new act, we can expect a reduction of the virus onslaught because it has made virus writing an illegal activity. And, like hacking into other computers, this applies whether the crime is committed with benign or malignant intent. At least the hackers, of both kinds, have been warned and should take heed of the warning.

But, warned or not, some hackers continue to rise to the challenge of writing new viruses or accessing other people's computers. Those with criminal intent will not be deterred by the new laws because, if the potential gain is high enough, they would not be deterred by any laws anyway. The benign hackers face a maximum of a £2000 fine or up to six I months in jail. That may deter the faint-hearted, but my guess is some will still take a chance.

It is a shame, but viruses and electronic intruders are going to be with us from now on. We have each to weigh up our risk, and take the necessary precautions.