Classic Computer Magazine Archive COMPUTE! ISSUE 106 / MARCH 1989 / PAGE 13


The Global Village Under Siege-We've Met the Enemy and He Is Us

Before personal computers, the only way that most people could gain access to computer technology was through time-sharing systems. If you had a terminal or teletype machine, you could link up with a remote computer system through the telephone lines. Your terminal sent your keystrokes to a central computer (called the host) and printed the results of that computer's program on your display screen or on paper.
    Then computers started replacing terminals. While the personal computer lacks the power of mainframe computers used in most time-sharing networks, it makes up for that by being devoted to one user-suitable for all but the largest applications.
    But even as the one-computer/one-person model was becoming the new standard, many people felt we were becoming too isolated from one another. Personal workstations offer great benefits, but there's also much to be said for interconnections with our colleagues and with remote databases.
    Consider, for example, the difference between libraries and bookstores. If I'm interested in a particular author's book and I want to make sure I can always have access to it, I'll purchase a copy from the bookstore. If, on the other hand, I'm only interested in a few passages from that book, I'll go to the library and borrow a copy.
    Computer use can be thought of in the same manner. I use my personal documents and document-creation tools so often that I need to have my own copies. On the other hand, reference materials-especially those that are updated frequently-are better supplied through a remote "library." The concept of the interconnected work group, in which several computer users share a single file server (the library) and a high-quality printer, makes good sense. It connects users who share interests and tasks, making collaborative work possible.
    This work-group concept can link team members who are separated by great distances. Large computer networks can interconnect people from various companies, universities, and countries, promising to create what philosopher Marshall McLuhan called the global village.
    Imagine the power of a well-designed network. You're in Europe on business. You connect your portable computer to your cellular car phone, and within seconds you're linked with the home office. While downloading your memos, you remember that you've forgotten to turn on the water sprinkler system at your house. After finishing your business, you dial the host computer at your home and enter the water cycles for your garden. When you finally disconnect, you know everything is being taken care of.
    Too futuristic? Not in the least. Everything I've just described has been going on for ten years, carried out by an intrepid group of forward-thinking hobbyists. But such connections are within the reach of all computer users today.
    Yet we're in grave danger of turning this dream of a networked nation into a nightmare. Computer viruses that infect major networks threaten to crush their real world potential. Those who sabotage computers with unwanted programs may successfully keep the promise of network technology from reaching the rest of us.
    The challenges of networking this nation are not technological, but social. We've allowed a few postpubescent pranksters to hold us hostage with a few self-replicating programs that can critically damage data stored in network-connected computers. The fear of infection will cause fewer people to explore the benefits of networks.
    There are those who suggest that we practice safe computing by downloading only programs we know to be uninfected. But this doesn't always protect against viruses. Others argue that we should develop vaccines to eradicate viruses once they're loaded, or that we should build interface programs that effectively block viruses from being transmitted.
    None of these approaches will work permanently. Virus creators like nothing better than the challenge of breaking a new copy-protection scheme or bypassing security measures to get into a system.
    There's another solution.
    The Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution guarantees the right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures.... If I've connected myself to a computer network for the purpose of communicating with others, and my computer is invaded by someone's virus program, my personal security has been breached; it's the same as if someone had broken into my home and gone through my papers and effects. The only way to stop virus creators is to convince them that they're committing a federal offense.
    If some of these people find themselves guilty of a federal crime, they might find less humor in their acts. And the "networks" could become networks once again.