Computers are marvelous tools. In less than two decades, the industrialized world has become completely dependent on them.
But during that same period of growing dependence, there has not been a commensurate amount of attention paid to the need for computer security and for the need to punish those who breach that security.
Warnings: In recent weeks, numerous warnings have been issued about a computer worm named Code Red and its successor, Code Red II. Unlike a virus, which needs a person to help it spread, a worm infects other computers on its own. It attacks Internet-connected computers and is capable of defacing Web sites and opening infected computers to intruders.
Microsoft has reacted quickly, making available a "patch" that protects computers against Code Red and Code Red II intrusion, but that is of no consolation to the operators of systems that were already infected.
Such software protection, as good as it can be, is only available after the fact. And software engineers can't anticipate every hacker who is willing to spend time constructing something like Code Red.
What hackers and cyber vandals need to know is that if they engage in this behavior, they will be tracked down, and when tracked down they will be prosecuted.
Reaching into a corporation's or a person's computer and destroying information and the computer's ability to function is different than throwing a brick through a window or splashing paint on a wall only in degree. It is vandalism, pure and simple, but with financial consequences that far exceed physical vandalism.
The FBI is working with Canada, the United Kingdom and Australia to fight the worm's spread and to try to determine where it started.
When the originator is identified, he or she should not only face jail time, but should face civil action designed to demonstrate that building and spreading computer viruses and worms brings far more trouble than it's worth.
Larger threat: In the meantime, the security of government computers must be tightened, since not all hacking is done by cyber vandals. Some is the work of spies, terrorists and saboteurs.
Just recently, the General Accounting Office found that Commerce Department computers were incapable of preventing, detecting and responding to attacks. The department's computer systems contain sensitive information on export controls, patents, trademarks and other subjects that are vital to the nation's economic health.