Sometimes with the Internet it seems like you are living out on the frontier. But unlike the "wild West," which settled down after a few years, computer security threats have continued to rise and show no signs of abating any time soon.I generally avoid picking apart analogies, but there is a flaw in this one. The Wild West took more than a few years to settle down. Which is why the basic Wild West analogy is actually apt. Cyber-space today is like the Wild West, a virtual Deadwood upon Dodge upon Laramie. People of low morals are trying anything they think they can get away with, and often they are. There's easy money ripping off them there virtual wagon trains and consumer pioneers.
What we haven't seen yet is the equivalent of hangings for horse theft, swift and decisive justice for those whose immoral and illegal acts strike at the infrastructure of the information age. We have flirted with the idea. When I spoke at The Global Internet Project special workshop on Internet spam in June of 2002, the chairman asked the audience what should be done about spammers and the suggestion [not from me] that there should be some hangings was widely applauded.
But when I see some of the puny sentences handed out for computer crimes, I wonder if it might be time to make a few examples. Yes, I know that is a dangerous path and there is an inherent risk of fallout from unfairness. Yet think about this: What is more corrosive to the future of our culture and economy: Selling a few ounces of pot or stealing a few million credit card records? From sentencing patterns it would appear that dealing drugs is considered way more immoral than either using drugs or ripping off consumers. America jails more people than any other country. But very few people who commit fraud and deceptions detrimental to commercial trust seem to do serious jail time (it will be interesting to see how much time the likes of Fastow and Ebbers actually serve).
Another one to watch is Brian Salcedo, who got "the longest prison term ever handed down in a computer crime case in the United States" for trying to steal customer credit card data from Lowe's. Not surprisingly, the publications like Wired that still think there is something cool about messing with people's lives [as long as you do it with a computer and not a baseball bat] termed Salcedo's 9 year sentence "Crazy" (see Crazy-Long Hacker Sentence Upheld).
Keen observers will note that story was written by Kevin Poulsen who was himself sentenced, in 1991, to 51 months for various criminal hacking offenses committed in the 1980s. At the time it was said to be the longest ever sentence for hacking. Maybe a sentence of 20 years back then, instead four and a quarter, might have had a more powerful deterrent effect.