Bruce Christensen was known among his peers as a “computer alcoholic.” For months, the bright, 19year-old education student at the University of Alberta in Edmonton had been obsessed with outwitting the institution’s $4-million Amdahl 470 V-6 computer. In mid-January, however, Christensen’s computer capers came to an abrupt end when he, and his friend, Michael McLaughlin, also 19, were each convicted on theft charges (Christensen also on a mischief charge) and given suspended sentences after regularly cracking the code of the computer’s electronic brain and costing the university $300,000 a year to upgrade its security system.
The case attracted widespread attention as Canada’s first-ever computer trial. More significantly, perhaps, it signals the start of a new chapter in Canadian crime books come the 1980s, as the so-called “cashless society” approaches—namely, an anticipated wave of highly sophisticated and subtle computer crimes. Police forces across the country are already bracing themselves. A bulletin issued recently by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police in Ottawa on computer-related crimes warns: “Without overreacting, we must not rule out the possibility that we are viewing the tip of an expanding iceberg.” Police experts, meanwhile, are understandably nervous since such crimes are often puzzling enough to make even a modern-day Sherlock Holmes shudder: although RCMP records show only 19 incidents of computer crimes in Canada to date, it is estimated that about 85 per cent remain undetected.
Most frequently these crimes involve “data diddling” or tampering with computer information, often with the intent of committing fraud or gaining access to confidential records. It’s a phrase coined by Donn Parker, an international computer crime researcher at the Stanford Research Institute in Menlo Park, California, who after 20 years, has collected some 650 case histories on computer crime around the world. He maintains these crimes in the next decade will grow “with the increasing number of computers and the increasingly
sensitive functions that computers are being used for.” Computerized crime can also be committed, he says, by entering secret instructions into a computer (“The Trojan Horse” method) or by planting a timed release of information into the computer (“Logic Bomb” method). Whatever the means, the payoff is often mammoth: the average bank fraud is worth $19,000; the average bank heist using computers, $450,000.
The biggest bank theft in American history was discovered just last October, when Stanley Rifkin, 32, a mildmannered computer expert, was arrested for robbing the Security Pacific National Bank headquarters in Los Angeles of $10.2 million. Rifkin, a computer wizard who liked to challenge his own home computer to chess, designed an ingenious way of finding out the secret code numbers in the bank’s wire transfer room, and then, using a false name, had the money transferred into a New York bank account. He was exposed only when he tried to use the cash to buy diamonds. Canada, meanwhile, has had its own, less spectacular, incidents. A few years ago, in a Chrysler Canada Ltd. auto plant in Windsor, Ontario, some $40,000 worth of parts were
stolen daily after the plant’s computer had been fixed to hide the missing inventory. In Toronto, a pension analyst reaped $29,300 by deleting names on disability pension cheques and substituting aliases. He then reprogrammed the computer to send these cheques into these aliases’ accounts, opened by himself. When he was discovered by the RCMP, he and his wife were living in a splendid $150,000 home purchased with the stolen money.
Like Rifkin, many perpetrators of computer crime are young (between the ages of 18 and 30), bright and “games people” who delight in masterminding control of computer systems. Though these white-collar criminals would never dream of robbing in the street, they think nothing of stealing from a wealthy corporation, especially since faceless computers don’t scream or shout back. John Carroll, a computer science professor at the University of Western Ontario in London,is currently putting together a profile of potential computer criminals and calls their attitude toward their crime “the inverse Robin Hood syndrome—rob from the rich and keep it.” He notes that these people, often insiders, adopt a mentality about robbing big institutions that says,
“as long as it doesn’t hurt anyone in particular, it isn’t wrong,” an attitude he tentatively labels “the Hugh Hefner syndrome.” Says Donn Parker: “The perpetrator often puts more energy into rationalizing his action than he did in performing it. He also works very hard to reduce the element of criminality in his motives.”
While the RCMP have set up courses in computer security to assist trainees in the expected onrush of more such crimes, municipal police chiefs are meeting with industry officials annually in a committee set up to deal with the problem. Tom Wylie, who coordinates a nine-man team within the RCMP to deal with government-related computer abuse, observes: “There’s a great move afoot to improve security systems in computers.” In private business, meanwhile, companies like Bell Canada and major banks have taken to policing themselves by hiring special computer-security experts. In 12 cities across Canada, computer-security seminars are now being given to private businessmen who own computer systems. Warns Jim Finch, seminar organizer and volunteer computer ombudsman at the Canadian Information Society in Toronto: “We haven’t found any computer yet that is totally safe from theft.”
Most Canadian companies hesitate to prosecute when computer crimes are committed, fearing public exposure might drive customers away, and prefer to deal with employee offenders internally. Those who do go ahead often find the laws lag behind the fast-paced technology: for instance, if computer printouts are stolen, should the person be charged for the cost of the paper or the cost of the data, and how does the law fix a price tag on this material? “The rules and laws in Canada pertaining to evidence with the advent of computers are going to change,” predicts Weldon Fitzsimmons, formerly deputy commissioner with the RCMP and now deputy manager of the Insurance Crime Prevention Bureau in Toronto and also chairman of the police chiefs’ crime in industry committee. In the United States, new legislation, called the Federal Computer Systems Protection Act, is already being studied in committee, while in this country, the federal justice department is re-evaluating the Criminal Code as it pertains to computers. Until better laws are passed, computer crimes could well gain the same notoriety as Bonnie and Clyde gave to the hit-and-run robberies of the ’30s.
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