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.
``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.
The Internet's strength - its openness - is also its weakness. In the printing-press era, it cost money to print books and more money to distribute them. With the Internet, it's almost completely free. While that freedom gives everybody the chance to be an instant publisher, what they write isn't always great literature.
Even Internet critics, however, are leery of electronic censorship. Some Internet pioneers have cut back their time on the network because of the deluge of info-junk. (See story, below.)
The network makes it almost too easy to send things to others.
In April, two Arizona immigration lawyers flooded the Internet with ads for their services. In June, they did it again. Reportedly, it took attorney Laurence Canter of Phoenix less than 90 minutes to send his original ad to more than 5,000 electronic discussion groups that, in turn, are read by millions of people. The cost for this effort? Nothing except the regular monthly fee to his Internet provider and a local phone call. The result: More than 15,000 responses flooded in, crashing the system of his Internet provider. The responses were mostly complaints. Sending unsolicited ads is considered a no-no on the ``net.'' But the flap shows how tough it is to enforce unwritten rules in such an anything-goes environment.
Back at the Internet discussion group, Fraggle Rocks is beginning to get responses to her addiction problem. Johnny dreams up an on-line wedding, complete with inside Internet jokes. ``Super'' suggests trying a role-playing game (called a Multi-User Dimension or ``MUD'' as a substitute.)
The discussion group - alt.irc.recovery - is intended ostensibly to help people get over their electronic addiction. But the tone here is only mock-serious. Fraggle herself comes back on-line to explain that she has no intention of leaving her virtual enclave. What she really wants is to be ``a little character that can stay in IRC all the time and never leave. That would be real ... not this stuff they call bills and eating and breathing.''
Researchers disagree about whether to call this behavior addiction. ``I'm really tired of seeing people take a shallow sort of twist on it,'' says Amy Bruckman, an education research assistant at the Media Lab of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, Mass. (See story, right.)
The bigger issue is the quality of on-line interaction. At its best, Internet exposes people to a wealth of information and contacts. At its worst, it is mindless jabber.
``One could almost call it Internet trash talk,'' Professor Win-ner says. ``The thought is that nobody really knows who you are. And the processes of social accountability ... are just missing on-line. Anyone can say just about anything and then vanish.''
``It's almost a robot-like type of communication,'' adds Valerie Lorenz, executive director of the Compulsive Gambling Center Inc. in Baltimore. ``They send jokes or a little bit of the latest news. [But] they don't get to know each other at an emotional level. It takes up time. But what happens when you turn the computer off? There's still the emptiness and the loneliness.''
Technology and society will eventually address these deficiencies. ``It's really a design problem,'' Ms. Bruckman says. ``Think about the difference between walking into McDonald's and walking into a fancy French restaurant.'' People pick up on the social clues: the decor, the lighting, what the waiters are wearing, and the hours of operation and they act accordingly. The trick, she adds, is to put those same kinds of clues into on-line environments.
Bruckman is building a professional community for adults - a MUD, actually - where everyone has to use his or her real name. Participants can go from one virtual room to another and participate in organized activities. Every Tuesday night, writing teachers get together at a virtual cafe to exchange ideas. The hope is that users will become more discriminating.
``In the great shakedown that will doubtless occur, both good and bad will emerge and I think will be fairly obvious,'' Winner says. ``Right now, we're getting a lot of toxic waste on-line. But eventually people will say: `Gee, I don't want to live in this Love Canal. Let's move to someplace where we have meadows and trees and people talking seriously about things that matter.' ''