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Computer Virus Episode Raises Ethical Questions At Leading Schools

November 8, 1988

NEW YORK (AP) _ The marauding computer virus unleashed last week has jolted many academics into realizing that ethical values are critical in a field where brilliant minds can turn dangerously arrogant, careless and naive.

″I would like to see students more sensitized to this,″ said Peter Yee, a member of the experimental computing center at the University of California’s Berkeley campus, one of the targets of the virus.

The virus, believed spread by a graduate computer science student at Cornell University, clogged an estimated 6,000 computers at universities and research institutes by spreading via electronic mail networks and making copies of itself. It reportedly only took up memory space and did not destroy files.

″Before this incident, students felt that security and privacy were somebody else’s problems,″ Yee said Monday. ″Now that one of our own has done this, I expect more in-depth discussion.″

Others queried in an informal sampling of top U.S. universities said they believe most computer science students have a fundamental grasp of proper ethical conduct. But several said computer advances are moving so quickly that questions of right and wrong often have not been discussed in depth.

″I think there’s a broad consensus among students and faculty at Harvard that tampering with major computer information systems is a very bad thing to do, and it can cause disruption within the whole social structure,″ said John Shattuck, Harvard vice president for government, community and public affairs.

At the same time, Shattuck said, ″I think the technology is moving so rapidly here that it’s somehow gotten ahead of the discussion and careful weighing of principles, as reflected in the slow evolution in the law in this area. This case will certainly draw attention to the questions.″

The Cornell student, Robert T. Morris Jr., did his undergraduate studies at Harvard.

The Justice Department has directed the FBI to conduct a full-scale criminal investigation of Morris and the incident, a government source familiar with the case said late Monday on condition of anonymity. The FBI had been conducting a preliminary inquiry.

″It’s a bit terrifying,″ the 23-year-old Morris said.

Thomas Guidoboni, a lawyer in Washington, D.C., said he had been retained to represent Morris, who is staying at his family’s Arnold, Md., home. ″We have notified the federal authorities of our representation and his whereabouts,″ Guidoboni said.

Eugene Mallove, spokesman and chief science writer for the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, said the virus incident compelled the school’s authorities to reiterate their policy on the misuse of computers, which will be published Wednesday in the campus newspaper, Tech Talk.

″We’re going to send out a message loud and clear that this is not to be tolerated, this is not a matter to be taken lightly,″ he said.

The spread of the virus occurred just a few weeks after MIT held a symposium on ethics in high-technology fields, although the specific question of spreading computer viruses wasn’t discussed, Mallove said.

James Ball, director of computing at Stanford University, another victim of the virus, said most students and researchers were awed by the infestation and how easily it spread.

″A lot of us have talked about what could have happened. If this had been a malicious attack, it could have been a real disaster,″ Ball said. ″For us, the reaction was wiping the sweat off our brow and saying ’woooh.‴

But Ball said that underlying ethical and legal questions about why spreading such a virus was wrong, or even whether it was wrong, haven’t been discussed much, reflecting an important weakness in the discipline.

″There’s a great deal of naivete among computer science people. They spend an enormous amount of their lives in front of a screen. Some are somewhat introverted,″ he said. ″Computer scientists, I don’t believe, have the foggiest notions about laws on things such as copyright infringements.″

Still, Ball said: ″I think there’s a general impression it was wrong. People were talking about the possibilities of fines and imprisonment. People realize the severity of the potential outcome for people who do it, sort of like if I’m speeding and I see a crash where people burned to death.″

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