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A Ticking Time Bomb

January 1, 1988 -

Companies and law enforcement agencies are encountering a new and growing area of computer crime, one which embarrassed companies often try to hush up. At a recent conference of the Probation Officers Association of Ontario, Sergeant Ted Green gave the following examples of how criminals are using computers for theft and sabotage:


Many companies do not press charges, and if they do, find it difficult to succeed in court. They are reluctant to publicize this kind of crime, because they fear that the shareholders and customers will be concerned about the company's vulnerability. (The O.P.P. estimates that only five per cent of computer crime is reported.)

It does not take too much imagination or expert knowledge about modern computers to realize that if the kind of logic bombs described at this conference can be secretly programmed into computer systems, the potential for damage is simply beyond our imagination. Green speculated that if somebody were to interfere with the information in the computer systems of large financial institutions, "it could bring the country to its knees" (Globe and Mail, November 3, 1987).

A communications technician recently told me that a state-of-the-art computerized telephone system installed in certain government offices was mysteriously and repeatedly knocked out of service. Experts failed to discover the source of the problem. After a long time suspicion led to one disgruntled employee who had devised a way electronically to trigger the malfunction. The ominous potential of this kind of action is very clear.

What can be done to prevent the breakdown of an information system on which our society has come to depend? One thing is certain: if this kind of crime continues to be hushed up, we may someday have a very rude awakening indeed. Could this be an instance of our being made captive to our own technologies? Is it still possible to protect ourselves against the dangers lurking in the corridors of our increasingly powerful computer systems? It is obvious that not just technical expertise and cleverness but wisdom and courage are now needed.