Crooks find computers useful; terrorists see vulnerable targets. Computer abuse also endangers people's privacy, other rights
Boston — Crime and terrorism have entered the computer age. The use of computers to commit crimes and terrorism targeted against computers are depriving Americans of some of their constitutional protections, costing business and government billions of dollars in annual losses, challenging traditional law-enforcement procedures, and perhaps even endangering human lives.
This is the assessment of a group of government, legal, and industry spokesmen who are calling for an all-out war on what they term ``technocrimes.''
August Bequai, a Washington, D.C., lawyer and security consultant, estimates that industry-related espionage in the United States costs $1 billion a year, with the average ``take'' placed at $500,000. Others say the actual bill may be many times this amount.
Mr. Bequai, whose book on the computerization of crime and terrorism has just been published, explains that ``these losses can come from anywhere - from electronic juvenile delinquents or hackers, to computer-wielding mobsters and Mafioso, to industrial spies and high-tech thieves for the KGB.''
Meanwhile, computers are fast joining political and business leaders as major terrorist targets, according to Federal Bureau of Investigation special agent Neil Gallagher, who heads an antiterrorism unit in Boston.
``Bombings against computer centers reached a peak last year, with 24 centers bombed in West Germany alone,'' Mr. Gallagher says. ``What is frightening is that the more our society depends on computers, the greater the risk. For instance, a well-directed terrorist attack on 100 key computers could bring the American economy to a standstill,'' he warns.
Lawrence J. Fennelly, chief consultant to Assets Protection Training Institute, a security company, insists that ``computer felons are getting away with multimillion dollar frauds.''
``Part of the problem,'' he adds, ``is that more than 60 percent of all corporations have no computer security programs whatsoever, and over half of these have been ripped off.'' Mr. Fennelly cites a computer consultant who robbed a California bank of $10 million in a wire fraud.
These experts also report that organized crime is using computers to keep track of its vast gambling, loansharking, prostitution, fencing, and narcotics operations. It also uses electronic devices to identify the whereabouts of individuals it has targeted for ``hits.''
Among recommendations to foil the rise in computer crime are developing international agreements to detect electronic theft and apprehend culprits; increasing security capabilities for valuable databases; refining investigatory methods for tracking down high tech criminals; and enacting laws to deal with crime spawned by the computer age.
Bequai also stresses that a new sense of morality and responsibility needs to be developed within government and private industry in regard to use of computers.
``Few [in the public and private sectors] dispute that ethical considerations should govern the transfer of information between computers, their use, and access to the data they store,'' Bequai says. ``But most companies have done little to address the ethics problem. ... And when they have done so, their guidelines are often cosmetic and ambiguous.''
Bequai and others hail newly passed federal legislation that restricts intrusion of privacy by electronic means. But they say stronger protections are needed to ensure individual rights guaranteed by the constitution.
``With electronic access, there is [little or] no privacy'' says Bequai.
Jerry Berman, director of the American Civil Liberties Union's project on technology and privacy, predicts Congress will pass legislation that will further strengthen individual protections against computer theft, intrusions on individual rights, and other possible electronic abuses.