ANYONE who has taught a ``dumb'' computer or pocket calculator to solve a complex problem knows the exhilaration of successfully meeting that challenge. It truly is fun. The quest for complex programming challenges, however, never justifies unauthorized entry into someone else's high-tech home. That ethical lapse lies at the bottom of last week's clogging of a nationwide computer network, apparently by a Cornell University graduate student, Robert T. Morris Jr.
Some may view Mr. Morris as a folk hero. That would be inappropriate. True, he displayed technical finesse in discovering a ``back door'' in Internet, which links defense and university computers to speed the exchange of unclassified research information. He allegedly inserted onto the net's electronic mail service a program designed to mask its origin, to multiply and slowly spread, and then to use up vacant memory in computers tied to the network - without damaging data files. (It wound up spreading much faster than he had anticipated.) The network's designer left the door open so he could get back in to fine-tune it over time.
Technical elegance, however, does not compensate for the time computer specialists spent trying to unclog an estimated 6,000 computers affected, as well as the time lost to researchers.
More important, unauthorized entry into a computer system is no different in principle from breaking and entering a home. Society rejects the excuse that a suspected housebreaker was only trying to meet the challenge of picking a new type of lock, or that ``no harm was done, I only filled the living room with confetti.'' Similar responses are unacceptable in the field of computers.
So is the notion that Morris might have been trying to point out the network's security weaknesses to its sponsors. The proper approach is to contact the sponsors after discovering the loophole, not exploit it.
Where gaps in federal and state computer-crime laws exist, they should be plugged and sanctions strengthened, without unduly hampering the flow of information vital to a democracy. Society needs to put itself on record as rejecting such intrusions.
Computer users have responsibilities, too: to be alert to the technology's potential for abuse and take common-sense precautions; and to accept with that new computer box or computer science class the moral obligations that accompany the key tool of the information age.