ALL THIS HOOPLA about pimply computer-aided "whiz kids" cracking security codes and sneaking into "top secret" systems is getting tiresome. The fact is, breaking into non-classified, public-access computer networks such as the ones recently cracked, has become a rite of passage for bright kids with computers. And it should be viewed as little more than that. It is no more complicated, technically, than that rite of yesteryear, the hot-wiring of an automobile. And it is usually less of a threat to society than kids buying whiskey using a fake ID.
The very popular movie "WarGames," where illicit computer access leads to the brink of World War III, seems to be what's giving everybody the willies about these real- life computer break-ins. What nobody seems to realize is that the networks being broken in to are designed to be accessed from a home computer. Sure, these networks in the headlines theoretically had security. But it was the electronic equivalent of a $5 padlock. Any kid with an ounce of brains and a sliver of luck who can't break in doesn't deserve to own a modem-equipped personal computer.
Take "WarGames" again. Outside of a few totally unbelievable bits of technical legerdemain, the film's young protaganist hews closely to the tactics used by most computer punks. Does he use ultrasophisticated programming techniques to break into the school's computer to up his grades? Of course not. He's discovered where the entry password to the computer is written down and gets himself sent off to the vice principal in order to sneak a peak. This isn't technological swashbuckling -- it's being a weasel.
The same can be said of the recent Los Alamos caper pulled off by a group of Milwaukee kids calling themselves the 414s (for the city's area code). What this Gang of 414s did is simply dial into a very low-level and accessible data bank that happened to be located at the National Lab at Los Alamos.
According to various news reports, the kids found out about the system there practically by accident. They had used their computers to dial into one of the dozens of local computer "bulletin boards" found around the country that list phone numbers and "ports" to access other computer systems. These bulletin boards are the way computer buffs keep in touch with one another and keep each other up-to-date. Anybody who shells out the bucks for a computer and the modem (the device that lets the computer communicate with other computers over the phone lines) could just as easily find this out.
Apparently, the security surrounding the Los Alamos computer was tenuous to the point of non-existence -- i.e., easy password access -- and the kids got in and mucked about. Because of the technological illiteracy of the public in general and the news media in particular, the computerized punks were hyped as the digital versions of Bonnie & Clyde.
The real story isn't the technology but the sociology: breaking into computer systems has merely become this generation's equivalent of taking a Tin Lizzie apart and reassembling it in the dean's office.
When I was taking computer science at the University of Illinois in the late '70s, you were a wimp if you couldn't crack the security of at least one of the school's multiple computer systems. And, believe me, most computer departments at major universities by now have had plenty of experience dealing with ornery, capricious and brilliantly demented college students with a knack for creating havoc.
My favorite memory was getting someone's password from a mutual acquaintance and using it to enter into our school's PLATO computer-assisted education system.
PLATO used all sorts of video-game-like techniques to teach the frosh principles of physics. Taking advantage of the author mode, I rewrote segments of one of the optics programs so that the angle of reflection didn't equal the angle of incidence when the unsuspecting student tried to bounce light off computer-simulated mirrors. Since some 700 or 800 students were taking the course at the time, this was a wonderful way to unrepress my hostilities -- although I was a bit taken aback that it took two weeks for the switcheroo to be reported.
Neither I, nor any other computer student, considered this to be a big deal. It was just a part of the educational process of getting "hands-on" experience.
What it comes down to is that new technologies mean new pranks for kids to play. Hot-wiring never ranked as front-page news in the '50s when teen-agers went for joy rides. That's because everybody knew what a car was. Computers are now considered exotic, but if you think of them as just a machine, like any old Ford, what the Los Alamos lab did was the moral equivalent of leaving their keys in the ignition. "By this time," says computer crime expert Donn Parker, "the owners of dial-up access computer systems deserve what they get."
Clearly, there are computer systems that are dangerous to tap. The episode the FBI is investigating of the 414s getting into Sloan- Kettering's patient files is an obvious case of a prank that can have lethal unintended consequences. That pranks can become tragedies is always a possibility. But equally obviously, adults have a responsibility to guard against such access.
It's not that the kids in Milwaukee were all that clever, it's that the folks in Los Alamos -- and dozens of other computer facilities around the country -- are so dumb. It's not unlike shoplifting; it can be done with a minimum of skill and effort if security is lax. What we're seeing today is simply the logically malicious application of new technologies by punks.
"When I was a kid," says Parker, "the gang would go out and tear down an abandoned building. This is technological trespassing. It's essentially a mischief kind of thing and should be subject to the same sort of penalties we levy on people who damage property and such."
What Parker would like to see are high school computer classes talking about computer ethics in much the same way that driver education classes explain driver etiquette. "People should be told it's not nice to break into computer systems," says Parker.
By the end of the year, industry analysts predict there will be millions of personal computers in people's homes. A lot of those machines will have communications capabilities. It's a dead certainty that adolescents -- mischievious and otherwise -- will want to match their wits against computer security sytems both here and abroad. Clearly, we're entering a new age of mischief much as we did with automobiles and the passage of minimum drinking age laws.
Still, I fail to see why people are so surprised by all of this. Kids will be kids -- whether they're holding a bottle, the keys to a car or a floppy disc for the IBM Personal Computer.