Welcoming the Stranger
THERE IS-- or recently was--a shameful bit of software floating around the Internet. Known as AOL4FREE, the program evidently helped users to break the law by setting up America OnLine accounts without the inconvenience of paying for them. Then, in the late spring of 1997, the United States Department of Energy distributed an alert about a fake version of AOL4FREE. This fake theft program looked like the real theft program but was actually a deadly computer virus. Any user who tried to run it received a surprise. Rather than establishing an illegal America OnLine account, the program would erase the entire contents of the user's hard drive.
There is a certain existential irony in the image of a federal agency issuing a warning that a program somebody uses because he thinks it is designed to abet fraud may actually be a fraudulent copy of a program designed to abet fraud and may do harm to the would-be defrauder. But I suppose this is less unusual than it seems. After all, government agencies publish studies all the time on the harm that is caused by illegal drugs, in what is presumably an effort at deterrence. And the attorney general of one of our largest states, it is said, once pursued a consumer fraud action against an individual who offered "grass by mail" at low prices-- grass that turned out to be the kind mowed from the lawn, not the kind hidden under the mattress. So perhaps the warning was not as bizarre as it first appeared.
Nevertheless, my own initial reaction to the warning was, "Serves them right!" That is, I quickly decided that anybody who would try to steal computer time deserved to lose a hard drive or two. And