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[FYI] Should hackers spend years in prison?


Should hackers spend years in prison? 
Stiff penalties for computer trespassing could create a broad new
class of criminal -- including you and me.

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June 9, 1999 | The FBI recently declared war on those
pesky hackers -- again. The news is filled with the
story of some group known as Global Hell that is
breaking into Web sites and causing mayhem. The
FBI is cracking down, confiscating computers and
taking names; and some hackers are actually fighting
back and shutting down some government Web sites.

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But there's also a hidden danger. The precedents that
the courts set now for dealing with demons like
Mitnick will also apply equally to everyone who
follows. And it's not clear that the world is ready for
Mitnick-like sentences for the crimes he might have
committed, which remain murkily defined. 

Think about it: Someone who reads another person's
Rolodex is just a snoop, but someone who clicks
through somebody else's Palm Pilot is hacking a
computer database.

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To make matters even cloudier, in the meantime, Sun
Microsystems began giving away the source code to its
operating system to students around the world. In
other words, if Mitnick had only waited a few years,
enrolled in a university and asked nicely, he might
have been a poster boy for Sun's charity instead of a
prisoner. Today, Sun is even circulating the source
code to products like Java in hope of recruiting
customers and snagging bug fixes. The company is
practically begging people around the world to come
take a look at its code.

This big change in the customs and attitudes of the
software industry strains the arguments against
hackers. If giving away the source code is now a
"good thing" for corporations, did Mitnick and the
other hackers do a smaller good thing by grabbing it
ahead of time? Is Mitnick now a bit closer to being a
Robin Hood instead of a demon? If Linux triumphs,
will children be told tales of the dark days when the
Sheriff of Notingham sat on the boards of all of the
corporations and forced them to keep their source
code proprietary so only the nobles could enjoy its
bounty? Is it true that begging forgiveness is always
easier than asking permission?

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Kristian Köhntopp, NetUSE Kommunikationstechnologie GmbH
Siemenswall, D-24107 Kiel, Germany, +49 431 386 436 00
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