Lighter sentences for virus writers?

Posted by   Virus Bulletin on   Mar 3, 2003

A US report claims that sentences for computer-related crimes are too harsh.

The USA's largest group of defence lawyers has backed a report claiming that sentences for computer-related crimes are too harsh.

In a set of comments submitted to the US Sentencing Commission and signed by the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, the Electronic Frontier Foundation and the Sentencing Project (a group that focuses on perceived injustices in penalties), sentences that have been awarded for computer-related crimes were criticised for being tougher than those for comparable, non-computer-related crimes.

According to the report the 'typical' computer crime involves the misuse of a company's computers by a disgruntled current or former employee and the severity of sentencing often exceeds that of the crime.

The author of the report believes that the serious nature of computer-related offences is often overplayed, with the calculation of loss being both unreliable and open to exaggeration.

The report argues that the loss estimation for identical offences can vary widely depending on factors such as the actions taken by the victim (e.g. one victim may simply restore the hard drive from backup, while another spends large amounts of money hiring consultants to assess the damage) and the nature of the victim (i.e. the losses resulting from a compromised system within a small business with a low turnover will be lower than those resulting from a similar attack on a thriving business).

Furthermore, the report argues that 'greater penalties are dangerous' and they 'may chill legitimate computer research, business development and reporting on security vulnerabilities.' The author imagines that, were greater penalties to be instituted, security researchers who uncover and disseminate information on vulnerabilities might refrain from doing so for fear of being charged for their actions.

Last year, the sentencing by US courts of Melissa author David Smith provoked considerable discussion within the anti-virus community. Some considered Smith's 20-month prison sentence a fitting penalty for what they, like the authors of the paper, felt amounted to little more than a 'white collar crime', while others were disappointed by the lenience of the sentence. There was little talk, however, of the sentence being too harsh.

In his comment on David Smith's sentencing (see VB, June 2002, p.2) AV researcher James Wolfe said, 'it is nice to see that [US] courts have set a precedent for convicting virus writers.'

Let's hope the United States Sentencing Commission doesn't undermine that good work when it reviews and amends the sentencing guidelines for computer-related crimes.

Meanwhile, Reuters reports that new laws approved by European Union justice ministers will mean that, in Europe, virus writers could be imprisoned for up to five years. According to Reuters: 'Hacking and spreading viruses, when committed by organized criminals, will be punished with jail terms of no less than two years - and up to five years - under the new law.'

Posted on 03 March 2003 by Virus Bulletin

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