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To the thief who robbed m

technofile  by al fasoldt

Columns and commentaries in a life-long dance with technology

Simple gray rule

To the thief who robbed me

By Al Fasoldt

Copyright © 1991, The Syracuse Newspapers

This is a letter to the thief who robbed me a few weeks ago. Since that day, he's written to me about the robbery twice—each time by anonymous electronic mail.

Dear John:

I know that's not your real name, but it's the only name I know you by. The day you robbed me you left a calling card. It had the words "John Smith" written on it.

I realize this is confusing to you, John. As far as you're concerned, you never came into my home or into my office. You never left a calling card. You were just a tourist, right? All you pulled off was a little hack. All you did was let your fingers do the walking—into my computer system.

No, John. It wasn't just a hack. It was a robbery. Cops call it breaking and entering. You had no right to break into the area of my computer system where I keep private files. You had no right to browse through my programs. They aren't yours, John. They belong to me.

Like most thieves, you returned to the scene of the crime. Twice since that break-in you have sent electronic letters to me—by calling the same computer system that you had broken into.

It's ready to take all the legitimate mail you want to send, John. That's what it's for. It's a telecommunications computer that readers use to send electronic letters to the editor. Reporters use it to send in their stories from remote locations. Funeral homes use it to send obituaries.

And people who want to tell me off use it to tell me off.

But those readers didn't need to be told to behave themselves. They acted like guests in someone else's house. You acted like you owned the place.

In legal terms, John, the computer system that you violated is nothing more than an electronic version of my newspaper office. Anyone can walk into the lobby here, but we don't let visitors into the offices without a pass. In order to get that pass, they have to provide their names.

Likewise, the system you called lets anyone dial into the computer. But you have to give a name and a phone number if you want to reach the business end of that computer system—the menus and instructions that guide you through the task of sending something electronically.

Honest callers give their real names and real phone numbers. You gave a fake name. And your phone number? It's not "555-1212," John. I knew you were a clown as soon as I saw that number—the general number for directory assistance—in the permanent log the computer keeps for me.

And I knew you were a thief when the log showed me how you snuck through the private storage areas on my computer's disk drive, reading file after file.

In the second letter you wrote to me, you tried to excuse your behavior by saying you didn't steal anything.

"If someone takes something from you, then that's illegal and wrong," you said. "But you still have all your files; nothing is missing."

All you did was copy my files, and that's OK, right? The original files are still in my computer, so you couldn't have stolen anything. What wonderful logic, John. It shows a lot of maturity.

Suppose you walk into our lobby and sneak up the stairway when the receptionist isn't looking. The offices are right off the top of the stairway, John, and they're full of file cabinets. Are you telling me no one will mind if you pull open the first file drawer you see and start making photocopies of our private papers? After all, all you're doing is copying them, right? And what's wrong with that?

There's a lot wrong with that. Trespassing, for starters. Illegal entry, maybe. Theft. (Did we give you permission to take home copies of our files?) And a half-dozen other interesting illegalities.

You bet your bytes you were stealing the files from my computer, John. And you can be sure that using the telephone to commit a crime adds a few more fascinating wrinkles to the penalties.

Talk to a lawyer fast, John. If I catch you—and I assure you that I am far more determined than you are—I will do everything I can to make you pay.

I wish I could say that I feel this way just to get revenge. But there's a stronger reason. There are hundreds of honest callers who depend on me, and I won't let them down.

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