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The other Side of the Coin

All is not fun and games on the Net. Like any community, the Net has its share of obnoxious characters who seem to exist only to make your life miserable (you've already met some of them in section Usenet: the Global Watering Hole). There are people who seem to spend a bit more time on the Net than many would find healthy. It also has its criminals. Clifford Stoll writes in The Cuckoo's Egg how he tracked a team of German hackers who were breaking into U.S. computers and selling the information they found to the Soviets. Robert Morris, a Cornell University student, was convicted of unleashing a "worm" program that effectively disabled several thousand computers connected to the Internet.

Of more immediate concern to the average Net user are crackers who seek to find other's passwords to break into Net systems and people who infect programs on ftp sites with viruses.

There is a widely available program known as "Crack" that can decipher user passwords composed of words that might be found in a dictionary (this is why you shouldn't use such passwords). Short of that, there are the annoying types who take a special thrill in trying to make you miserable. The best advice in dealing with them is to count to 10 and then ignore them -- like juveniles everywhere, most of their fun comes in seeing how upset you can get.

Meanwhile, two Cornell University students pleaded guilty in 1992 to uploading virus-infected Macintosh programs to ftp sites. If you plan to try out large amounts of software from ftp sites, it might be wise to download or buy a good anti-viral program.

But can law enforcement go too far in seeking out the criminals? The Electronic Frontier Foundation was founded in large part in response to a series of government raids against an alleged gang of hackers. The raids resulted in the near bankruptcy of one game company never alleged to have had anything to do with the hackers, when the government seized its computers and refused to give them back. The case against another alleged participant collapsed in court when his attorney showed the "proprietary" and supposedly hacked information he printed in an electronic newsletter was actually available via an 800 number for about $13 -- from the phone company from which that data was taken.

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