Computers, Crime and the Law

By Branwyn, Gareth | The Futurist, September-October 1990 | Go to article overview

Computers, Crime and the Law


Branwyn, Gareth, The Futurist


Our experience shows that many computer hacker suspects are no longer misguided teenagers mischievously playing games with their computers in their bedrooms. Some are now high-tech computer operators using computers to engage in unlawful conduct.

-Gary M. Jenkins

Assistant Director, U.S. Secret Service

The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.

-Amendment IV U.S. Constitution

In the early morning hours of March 1, 1990, Steve Jackson Games, a small company in Austin, Texas, was raided by the U.S. Secret Service. In what is described as an ongoing nationwide investigation into "data piracy," the Secret Service confiscated computers, broke into file cabinets, and even hauled off the company's laser printers and photocopy machines. Why was Steve Jackson Games - the makers of Dungeons and Dragons-type noncomputer games - the target of a Secret Service raid? Apparently, the company was working on a science-fiction game that included data piracy and computer crime in a dystopian future.

Company officials do not know why the Secret Service found this game a threat to real-world computers, since it contains little information that could actually help a present-day computer criminal. There is far less technical information in this game than in 2600 Magazine [a computer hacker's journal,- company president Steve Jackson told THE FUTURIST. -The Secret Service said the game constituted a handbook for computer crime. That's like saying Swashbucklers,' our game about pirates, is a handbook for sword fighting!' After several months of pleading with the Secret Service, Jackson got his equipment back - but not before he lost an estimated $125,000 in sales.

The Steve Jackson Games incident is only one in a series of recent raids on individuals, organizations, and computer-bulletin-board systems suspected of perpetrating or aiding in computer crimes. A two-year Secret Service investigation, code-named Operation Sun Devil, targeted companies all over the United States and led to numerous seizures.

Critics of Operation Sun Devil claim that the Secret Service and the FBI, which has a similar operation, have conducted unreasonable search and seizure, disrupted the fives and livelihoods of many people, and generally conducted themselves in an unconstitutional manner.

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