There's one thing you've got to concede about the members of the U.S. Congress: They're consistent. Every time they try to do something about "computer crime," they screw it up.
The latest evidence for this unhappy conclusion is provided by the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act, a pearl of legislative ignorance that passed the House of Representatives earlier this month and is now headed for consideration in the Senate.
Judging from the 11 minutes of "debate" the House permitted itself before passing the bill -- a debate that consisted largely of members telling one another how distinguished they are -- the statute is designed to stop teen-aged computer owners from breaking into computer systems at corporations, schools and government agencies to poke around in the records of those organizations.
The bill creates two new federal felonies providing prison sentences of five years or more for people who make "unauthorized access" to government or corporate computers. Further, the law would make it a federal offense for a computer bulletin-board operator to list the passwords needed to gain access to such data bases.
Like many federal efforts to deal with personal computer users, this statute is an unworkable solution to a nonproblem.
Despite all the Hollywood hoopla about teen-aged wizards using their computers to outwit stupid adults -- as seen most recently in the new teen gross-out flick, "Ferris Bueller's Day Off," which includes a funny but completely fictional scene of young Ferris calling up the school computer to change his report card -- there have been very, very few actual cases of "unauthorized access" in real life. Law enforcement agencies that have been surveyed on the point report infinitesimal numbers of such cases.
But I couldn't expect Congress to choose hard data over Hollywood. The House members were treated to the following logic by Rep. William Hughes (D-N.J.), who argued in favor of the bill: "The hacker of today can become the white-collar crime superstar of tomorrow!" Hughes declaimed breathlessly. "We must not glamorize our Huck Finns into John Dillingers."
You can imagine how confusing this kind of warning is to those of us who are parents. A year or so ago we were being told that our kids would turn into unemployable know-nothings if we didn't buy them a computer. Now they tell us that our kids will become murderous gangland bank robbers if we do.
What's really going on here is that the politicians have figured out that most people don't like computer hackers, so it's safe to pass laws against whatever these dangerous hackers like to do.
The problem with this finger-to-the-wind approach to law-making is that it leads to legislation -- like the new "computer fraud" bill -- that aims at the wrong target.
To the limited extent that there is a problem of unauthorized access to computerized data bases, it can be solved by tighter security around the data base. But security measures can be difficult and expensive to maintain, so some banks, credit bureaus and agencies have been reluctant to keep their data secure.
If Congress really wanted to eliminate electronic intrusions, it could pass legislation requiring industry to maintain adequate security. But that might anger industry, so it's not a politically acceptable solution. Suppose you took your mother's gold jewelry to the bank for storage. And suppose some bank clerk carelessly left the jewels on a window sill before taking them to the vault. And suppose some kids came by, snatched the jewels and ran away.
Who's responsible for the loss? The kid on the bike, of course -- but the bank is at least equally at fault, for treating your valuables so carelessly.
For some reason, though, that same simple reasoning doesn't seem to apply when the snatching is done by computer. Congress, in this latest misguided "computer fraud" bill, is still chasing the kids while irresponsible banks, credit bureaus and government agencies that fail to protect our personal records get away scot-free.