THE DARK SIDE OF CYBERSPACE: Virtual reality now harbors actual criminals and addicts who shun the real world
"I NEED help,'' writes a woman calling herself Fraggle Rocks.Skip to next paragraph
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``I'm an addict. I think I spend my whole life on IRC.... I even got married on there. See my ring?''
She shows the ``ring'' on-screen - *O - followed by a computer smiley &gt; (turn the page clockwise 90 degrees to see it).
The vehicle of her addiction is the IRC or Internet Relay Chat, a kind of electronic party line on the computer.
Amid all the hoopla about the Internet and its benefits, there is a darker side to this worldwide web of computers. On-line addiction. Computer crime.
These are the most extreme symptoms of the Internet's troubling legacy.
In its present form, the Internet offers freedom without responsibility. Virtually anything goes in today's virtual worlds.
A British court, for example, heard last year how Paul Bedworth had broken into some 10,000 computer systems in France, Germany, Russia, India, and the United States.
Two of his accomplices pleaded guilty and were given six-month prison terms.
The lawyers for Mr. Bedworth, however, claimed their client was innocent because he was addicted to computers. The jury acquitted him.
On-line crime is the most serious challenge on the Internet.
``Technical crime is definitely increasing at logarithmic proportions,'' says Carl-ton Fitzpatrick, a senior instructor with the Financial Fraud Institute, part of the United States Treasury Department in Glynco, Ga. ``The technology, and the criminal use of the technology, is probably evolving faster than our use of it.... It is a marvelous tool for criminals.''
In some ways, any crime can be computer-related. Drug lords need computers to track their organizations every bit as much as corporate executives do. ``Any sophisticated financial crime today is a computer crime,'' Mr. Fitzpatrick says. Technical or on-line crime focuses on illegal activity conducted through the Internet or other on-line service.
Hackers are the most visible of these on-line criminals. But corporations and governments are getting savvier in defending against them. The bigger challenge is tracking criminals who use the technology for more common purposes, such as child pornographers distributing their wares on-line and rapists who set up their victims via electronic bulletin boards.
The underlying problem is the Internet itself. It (and many bulletin boards) are so open that men can pose as women and adults can pretend they're children. Since no one really knows who anyone else is on-line, criminals can gain the confidence of their targets.
``The exploitation of women and children is far and away the most insidious crime,'' says one law-enforcement official who himself poses as 20 different characters on-line to track criminals. Victims ``sit there in their own home and let their guard down.''
Help is on the way. On the technical end, MCNC in Research Triangle Park, N.C., and other research organizations are looking at ways to improve security over high-speed networks so that, for example, a computer user can know that Jane Doe is who she says she is. (According to longtime Internet users, many of the women on the network are really men posing as women; very few women pose as men.)
On the legal front, technically savvy investigators are educating fellow policemen, prosecutors, and judges about the dangers of on-line crime. The biggest hurdle will be to educate people, especially children, about the potential danger of on-line abuse, observers say.
``We spend a lot of time in schools teaching children how to deal with the kinds of invitations that should be rejected because they are undesirable and in fact dangerous,'' says Langdon Winner, a political-science professor at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, N.Y. ``We do not have the same kinds of methods and protections on-line.''
Sometimes, users need protection not from crime, but from junk.
Neo-Nazis are legally barred in Germany from openly selling their books, for example, but they have found a way around the restriction by using the Internet to distribute their tracts.