Have you ever noticed how those national commissions that are set up to study and report on This Trend or That Issue always end up concluding that the trend/issue in question is a bigger national problem than anybody ever imagined?
If the White House creates, say, a "National Commission on License Plate Slogans," it seems inevitable that the commission members -- after spending a few million dollars and holding a few months' worth of hearings and meetings -- eventually will conclude that the United States faces an acute surplus and/or shortage of License Plate Slogans and that significant remedial action must be taken instantly, if not sooner.
Of all the hundreds of public and private study commissions, centers and foundations examining national issues, only one in recent memory failed to adhere to this ironclad rule of commission behavior. That was in the mid-1970s, when the White House created a national commission on pornography; the commissioners concluded that pornography is an inevitable part of human life and not very dangerous on the whole.
Shocking, isn't it? A commission that concluded there was no big problem! This was utterly unacceptable -- so much so that the Reagan administration has now doled out a few million dollars to set up a new National Commission on Pornography. There's no need to hold your breath waiting for the Reagan commission's report: I can assure you unequivocally that it will conclude there's a big national problem and significant remedial action must be taken instantly, if not sooner. That's what these commissions are supposed to say, after all.
Given the history of national study commissions, centers, etc., I was pleasantly surprised when I read an imposing book titled the "First Annual Statistical Report" from a Los Angeles outfit called "National Center for Computer Crime Data" (2700 N. Cahuenga Blvd., No. 2113, Los Angeles, Calif. 90068).
My initial fear upon receiving the volume was that any "National Center" on "Computer Crime" would have to conclude that computers pose a big national crime problem. That conclusion, in turn, could spur government bureaucrats to expand their control over personal computers, which have so far been left fairly free of oversight or supervision from Big Brother.
In fact, the national center has performed a signal national service by demonstrating that "computer crime" is such a minor problem that it must rank somewhere below parking violations on the spectrum of national crime concerns.
Over a two-year period, the national center surveyed 130 prosecutors' offices in 38 states and asked how many computer crimes each office had encountered. The center then tallied these reports in a national "computer crime census."
Can you guess how many computer crimes were reported in this land of 236 million people and 20 million (or more) computers?
The figure was not 1 million; not 1,000; not even 100. The national center's survey of prosecutors came up with a grand total of 75 reported "computer crimes."
Even that minuscule number, it must be noted, includes some infractions that can only be classified "computer crime" if you stretch the language considerably.
One reported case, for example, involves a fellow in Colorado (he was a county prosecutor, by the way) who got a friend in the motor vehicle department to delete two speeding tickets from his driving record. This is labeled "computer crime" because the record was on a computer tape. If the motor vehicle department kept its records in file folders, do you suppose anybody would have called this a case of "filing cabinet crime?"
In short, this first national census says that "computer crime," by any stretch of the definition, is a statistically minute phenomenon. The antics of a few hackers have garnered grossly disproportionate attention from the media and the law-enforcement community. So-called "computer crime" is novel and exciting, so it's hardly surprising that even a few cases would attract considerable notice.
But legislators around the country are acting as if there really is a "computer crime" problem. The center's study shows that 22 states passed new "computer crime" legislation in the past two years. This demonstrates anew that the folks who govern us will always go after the trendy problem of the hour -- even when statistics prove the presumed problem doesn't exist.
The new computer crime census should be useful to those of us who would like to have free use of our computers without interference from pesky bureaucrats. The study delivers a powerful message to members of Congress and legislators who feel a need to pass personal-computer laws: There's no problem, fellows -- so keep your power-hungry hands off my keyboard.