Leading Article: Odd addiction, perverse verdict

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COMPUTER experts will both laugh and cry when they read of the verdict handed down yesterday in the case of Paul Bedworth, hacker. It was agreed that Mr Bedworth had broken into numerous computers in Britain and abroad by calling from the BBC microcomputer in his bedroom; that he had changed the data inside those computers; and that he had made more than 50,000 calls for which he had not paid. But his counsel found an expert witness to convince the jury that the hacker had no intent to commit the crimes, because he was so addicted to his computer that he was no longer responsible for his actions.

This must surely be a perverse verdict. By its nature, hacking into computers involves long hours in front of a screen. Far from being unusual in staying up half the night, Mr Bedworth was just doing what his fellows have done for years. Scores of universities and private companies could each produce a dozen software nerds as dedicated as he. The distinguishing feature of Mr Bedworth's case is his youth: he is 19 now, and was 14 when he first burnt the midnight oil in front of a keyboard. Few juries in drugs cases look so indulgently on the mixture of youth and addiction.

If Mr Bedworth's acquittal sets a precedent, it will make an ass of the Computer Misuse Act 1990. The Act was drafted specifically in order to close loopholes that had previously allowed people to do legally what he did. It laid out a useful distinction between 'unauthorised access' to a computer (simple hacking, for which only light penalties are laid down), and two more serious offences, designed to punish with prison those who aim to steal, sabotage,

or wreak havoc on other people's data.

Two lessons may be learnt from the story. First, computer crime is as complex as financial crime, and as difficult to prosecute under the traditional jury system. The Government must keep a close eye on the progress of such prosecutions, and consider alternative procedures if the guilty win acquittal by blinding juries with science. Second, the big businesses that asked for the legislation need to put their own houses in order. Too often, they forget to change the crucial passwords with which computer manufacturers program their machines to allow engineers to repair faults. Leaving those passwords unchanged is like leaving the chief executive's filing cabinet unlocked. Organisations that do so can expect little public sympathy when their innermost secrets are brought into public view.