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Cybernaut

Master criminal or scapegoat?

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For authorities that have been able to bring anyone to justice for a recent series of Internet worms and viruses that cost billions of dollars in damage, Jeffrey Lee Parson was a gift.

Parson took one of the existing worms viruses in circulation called Blaster, and modified it slightly before sending it back out on the Web. In doing so he left his digital fingerprints all over it – clearly a rookie mistake – and was easily apprehended.

About 7,000 computers were infected by his version of the virus, which is a relatively small number compared to other worms and viruses in the pipeline. It was also relatively easy to purge that virus from the Web. If anything, Parson’s worm was an inconvenience.

Still, authorities seem determined to make an example of Parson, in a way holding him responsible for all the other virus and worm programmers that got away.

That’s not to say he should get off scot-free. Even he isn’t saying that. All he wants is for the authorities to keep his crime in perspective.

The media jumped all over the case, and with the help of investigators they painted Parson as your prototypical loner, an overweight, antisocial loser with few friends, sociopathic tendencies, and a criminal streak a mile wide. They depicted him as one of those kids who sits in their parent’s basement on their computers, delighting in the anarchy of hacking and programming viruses – a real nogoodnik.

He could face up to 10 years in prison for his activities and a $250,000 fine.

There’s just one problem with this whole scenario – the real Parson is nothing like the desperate loser depicted in the media. He is friendly, close to his family, not particularly computer savvy, and has been co-operative with the authorities.

Neighbours who were interviewed by news organizations said Parson drove recklessly down neighbourhood streets, when Parson didn’t even have a driver’s license. While he agreed with the assessment he was overweight, Parson said he has lots of friends. He doesn’t drink, smoke or do drugs, and has never had a run in with the police before Blaster.

Parson was approached by the FBI the moment he was identified, according to a story on MSNBC.com, and worked with them to help them find the original author of Blaster. The government agents were nice to him, and he was as helpful as he could be – he really didn’t know anything, he said. The authorities also told him that he didn’t need a lawyer, that as long as he was helping everything would be all right. He was never arrested or even read his Miranda rights.

That all changed about two weeks after he was fingered by the FBI. Word apparently came down from the top to arrest and prosecute Parson.

Parson will make his second court appearance in Seattle on Sept. 17 – a long, long way from his friends, his family and his high school. He isn’t sure why he has to go all the way to Seattle, or why prosecutors chose that jurisdiction.

Parson’s family was not even given a copy of the official complaint against him until they were given it by a reporter at NBC News. Parson alleges that the complaint contains several inaccuracies.

For example, the complaint said that the authorities confiscated seven computers from the household, which was impossible because they only had four in the house, and Parson only used one of the machines – which he describes as "a piece of crap."

As troublesome as copycats like Parson have become, and however necessary it may be to start making an example out of people who author malicious worms and viruses and release them onto the Web, throwing the book at an 18-year-old who didn’t even really know what he was doing seems a little callous.

After all, there have always been hackers, and worms and viruses have been around for 20 years. Going after the original authors of these programs could have an effect, but there’s a good chance they’ll never get caught. If they are apprehended, they’ll likely be replaced by someone else.

All of this belies the real problem, and that’s the fact that the software that people are putting their trust in has more security holes than a slice of Swiss cheese. Almost every week a new security flaw is discovered, usually after someone has found a way to exploit it.

Security software does help to turn back worms and viruses, but only when it’s frequently updated. Same goes for the software for your operating system, e-mail and Internet programs.

Common sense also goes a long way – opening an e-mail attachment from someone you don’t know is asking for trouble. Would you open the door to your house from somebody who says they have naked pictures of Anna Kournikova?

Whatever happens to Parson, only time will tell. He did a stupid thing because it’s still too easy to do stupid things, and he is getting an education he won’t soon forget. Ironic, because all he wants to do now is to be left alone to finish his last year of high school.

I hope making an example of Parson will make the net safer, but I have my doubts.

Movie premiers online

Simon Beaufoy, the creator of the Oscar nominated film The Full Monty is taking an interesting approach to marketing his latest project, This is Not a Love Song – it’s the first movie to premier online, and can be downloaded from the official site at www.thisisnotalovesong.com.

Directed by Bille Eltringham, who recently directed the thriller 28 Days Later, the new movie is about a pair of fugitives who accidentally kill someone on a remote farm, and are hunted down by a group of vigilante farmers.

Filmed digitally, the movie takes place in England with a cast of actors well known in that country.

Before you get your hopes up, you should know that there is a significant drawback for the whole concept – currently the film can only be downloaded in the U.K.