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The Economics of Executing Virus Writers 857

Posted by michael
from the kill-9 dept.
applemasker writes "Slate.com has an article titled Feed The Worms Who Write Worms to the Worms which argues based on economic theory (and somewhat tongue-in-cheek) that it is a 'better investment' to execute the creators of worms, virus and trojan authors, than murderers. Anyone who has tried to resurrect a network or computer after a nasty infection may agree. Although the author does not seriously argue for capital punishment for the script kiddies, it does raise some interesting issues about how much 'value' society puts on certain types of harm and the author's view of a government's role in protecting us from it."
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The Economics of Executing Virus Writers

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  • by LostCluster (625375) * on Thursday May 27, 2004 @11:11AM (#9266773)
    Politicians love to associate their names with "get tough on crime" laws that raise the punishment for certain crimes... but you rarely here about anybody supporting lower sentances for crimes.

    Is it just me, or is there an inflation effect hitting our criminal justice system as over time the punishments keep getting higher for the same crimes...
    • by Q Who (588741) on Thursday May 27, 2004 @11:22AM (#9266926)

      In other words, capital punishment was never abandoned anywhere?

    • by Short Circuit (52384) <mikemol@gmail.com> on Thursday May 27, 2004 @11:22AM (#9266931) Homepage Journal
      Is it just me, or is there an inflation effect hitting our criminal justice system as over time the punishments keep getting higher for the same crimes...

      I wouldn't be surprised. Crime is always considered high by the populace, and the most obvious solution is always to increase the penalty. Not that it always works.

      Personally, I think the most effective solution is to convince people that if they break such-and-such a law, they will get caught. Presently, most ways to back up that threat involve trampling on civil liberties.

      Given the choice, I'd rather put up with the crime rate and have the option of protecting myself.
      • by laigle (614390) on Thursday May 27, 2004 @11:52AM (#9267341)
        I'd say a better solution is to start telling people the having their shiny electronic gizmos (very) occasionally stolen is not the biggest concern facing mankind. By all means we should pursue and punish those involved, but at some point the marginal cost of lowering the crime rate outweighs the cost incurred by the crimes.

        People need to learn the mentality that crime can actually be low enough. But try getting that through to a populace that can't be made to understand that life will always be imperfect.

        No no no. Planes and cars should never crash. Nobody should get cancer from anything. Everything you eat should be good for you. Prolonging HIV patients' lives by years, even decades doesn't count because it's not a cure. We need to toss out our civil liberties because terrorism is doing a fraction of the damage of eating too much red meat.
        • by Anonymous Coward on Thursday May 27, 2004 @12:23PM (#9267735)
          Jesus, I can't believe you actually wrote what you did. Riiight, of course we need to learn the "mentality that crime can be low enough."

          It's only ever low for those who haven't been raped, murdered, stabbed, robbed, etc.

          For those that have, the rate is always too high.

          I can see which of the two categories you fall in.
          • by TamMan2000 (578899) on Thursday May 27, 2004 @12:35PM (#9267898) Journal
            That guy took the words right out of my mouth. There is a cost of reducing crime, and it is not worth my freedom.

            That said... I have been robbed, my wallet was taken from a locker at a gym (yes it was locked, no I never figured out how they got in...) I found my wallet, devoid of all cash, in a nearby trash can. I was also assaulted about 10 years ago, fortunatly no harm came to me, he took one swing at me, missed, and I ran... A lot faster than he could...

            I think crime is pretty low right now. Of corse I wouldn't complain if the crime rate was lowered, but if big brother is needed to lower crime, I will take my chances, thank you very much...
          • by FrYGuY101 (770432) on Thursday May 27, 2004 @01:41PM (#9268824) Journal
            Ahem.

            I've been both stabbed AND robbed.

            Personally, I think the 'horrendous crime problem' in the US is more a product of the Media trying to sell advertisements than an actual problem. Hell, a study came out a while back showing that violent crime in the UK was the highest in Europe... and a throw away line in the report was that the US ("Known for its violent crime") was lower than any of the European countries being compared.

            Yes. Crime is a problem. But, like the grandparent said, there comes a point where the cost of trying to lower crime more is more costly than the crimes themselves...
            • by Cryogenes (324121) on Thursday May 27, 2004 @06:09PM (#9272032)
              Here is a report of international crime statistics [homeoffice.gov.uk] which shows that there is, in fact, far more violent crime in the US than in Western Europe.

              The following are average numbers of homicides per 100,000 inhabitants per year from 1997 to 1999

              US : 6.26
              England : 1.45
              Germany : 1.28
              France : 1.63
              Norway : 0.85
              Russia : 20.52
              S.Africa: 56.49

              Interestingly, the land of the free also has the extremely high prison population (from the same source, again per 100.000 inhabitants)

              US : 682
              England : 125
              Germany : 97
              France : 91
              Norway : 56
              Russia : 729
              S.Africa: 327
          • by An Onerous Coward (222037) on Thursday May 27, 2004 @02:02PM (#9269108) Homepage
            Indeed, skepticism abounds today, for I cannot believe that you wrote what you did.

            There are these wonderful things called "statistics" and arguments like yours are designed solely for the purpose of keeping people irrational and avoiding thinking about them.

            The basic thrust of your argument (and I'm hoping that thrust was unintentional) is that, so long as there is a one in six billion chance of being the victim of a violent crime, we as a society are responsible for taking whatever measures are necessary to alleviate that risk.

            Let's pull a number out of the air and say that the U.S. spends $100B for state and federal law enforcement every year. Let's also imagine that each time we double that number, we halve the crime rate. Maybe it would be worthwhile to spend $400B to reduce the rate to 1/4, or $800B to get it down to 1/8th the current level. But what about 1/256th? That would cost $25T, which would mean that pretty much the entire economy would be channeled into crime prevention. Forget other wonderful things like medical research, we might not even be able to feed ourselves. And still, people are getting killed, raped, stabbed, and shot.

            Nothing in the previous analysis even mentions the secondary costs that come with living in a de facto police state.

            I think you're going out of your way to be insulted. When the grandparent says crime is "low enough," he doesn't mean that we just don't give a crap about the victims who remain. He means that the costs associated with getting it down further are unjustifiable. Going back to my earlier example, imagine if we halved the current law enforcement funding. Assume that caused the crime rate to double. Would that be a bad thing? Certainly. But that doesn't eliminate the possibility that it might be the best thing to do, if funneling that money into medical research lead to an overall improvement in the quality of life.

            I could sit here and make precisely the same arguments you do, but in favor of such medical research. After all, for the parents of a child who died of cancer, there is no way the cancer rate was "low enough." But how big a tax increase would we allow to reduce it further than we already have? Would we allow the government to step in and start outlawing certain foods, or require that every citizen take an anti-oxidant tablet every morning? Would we sit by while those who refused the pills were jailed?

            The whole idea is that we allocate things like resources and government regulations where they will produce the most good. Simple economics.
        • by CoolToddHunter (605159) on Thursday May 27, 2004 @12:24PM (#9267752)
          I'd say a better solution is to start telling people the having their shiny electronic gizmos (very) occasionally stolen is not the biggest concern facing mankind. By all means we should pursue and punish those involved, but at some point the marginal cost of lowering the crime rate outweighs the cost incurred by the crimes.

          You (apparently) have never been robbed. It's not the "shiny electronic gizmos" that go missing, it's the feeling of security. I don't care about that stuff, but it bothers me that I feel uncomfortable when someone I don't know rings my doorbell at night now.

          That said, I agree that the marginal cost is definately not worth the benefit of lower crime. It sucks to have been robbed, but if that's the cost of preserving greater liberty for all, I'll take it.

        • by pyro_peter_911 (447333) on Thursday May 27, 2004 @02:34PM (#9269613) Homepage Journal
          People need to learn the mentality that crime can actually be low enough.

          Personally, I think crime is too low. I mean, seriously, what is a guy supposed to do with his Glock if no one ever breaks into his home. I've kept this thing loaded under my pillow since 1993 and haven't had the chance to shoot a prowler in the middle of the night yet.

          I'm beginning to feel that my investment in a weatherproof shotgun for the shower and a ten inch stiletto for my sock drawer will never pay off by proving that they're actually for self defense.

          Instead, I'm forced to defend my home against scorpions and termites and, let me tell you, a .45 automatic is not the right tool for the job when it comes to termite control.

          Someone did steal the knobs off of my Jeep's radio once, so if you see someone with an extra set of Jeep radio knobs let me know and I'll be right over to reduce the criminal population some more.

          Peter


      • Personally, I think the most effective solution is to convince people that if they break such-and-such a law, they will get caught. Presently, most ways to back up that threat involve trampling on civil liberties.


        Except in the case of virus and worm writers, unless you're amazingly stupid [pcworld.com] there's almost no chance you're going to get caught. The situtation is as if anyone with a small amount of knowledge could walk up to a payphone and wreak havoc on the phone network.

        In this case the only way you're g
      • by roemcke (612429) on Thursday May 27, 2004 @12:47PM (#9268056)
        Catching criminals, doesn't necessary prevent crimes. You allso have to convince people that if they don't break any laws, they won't get harassed.

        Luckily, the best way to assert that, is to respect cilvil liberties.
      • by uradu (10768) on Thursday May 27, 2004 @01:08PM (#9268357)
        > I think the most effective solution is to convince people
        > that if they break such-and-such a law, they will get caught

        Understandable gut reaction, but it flies in the face of statistics and research. People in the trenches (social workers, psychologists etc.) will tell you that a recurrent theme in criminal offenders is the failure to consider the consequences of their actions. This extends much deeper than just the crime aspect into their every-day life. Such people have trouble recognizing and considering even positive consequences, such as that getting an education will lead to a job, having a job removes the need for begging and/or stealing, etc.

        The easiest way to understand that is to think back to childhood, or to observe your own children. I look at my two five-year-olds and am amazed at their inability to consider the consequences of their actions PRIOR to riding that bike down a steep hill, or getting so focused in a chase that they completely ignore obstacles and other dangers, until they come running to you with a boo-boo. Many criminal offenders exhibit stunted mental development in areas such as this. These are people that usually also fail at rehabilitation without ongoing outside assistance precisely because they're incapable of planning, which is just another facet of considering consequences.

        And yet, legislation completely ignores such established knowledge and understanding, perhaps because it is created by people that are unaware of it at best, or are merely out to satisfy the primordial need for punishment and revenge at worst. But recognizing that deterrence is ineffective for many types of offences and offenders would be a first step towards a more holistic, preventative and rehabilitative criminal justice system.
    • Maybe we should execute politicians whose districts receive more money than average (say $4.5 million more than average, since that was the "value" of a white-collar worker in the article).
      • Maybe we should execute politicians whose districts receive more money than average (say $4.5 million more than average, since that was the "value" of a white-collar worker in the article).

        The "trick" to the "value of a human life" point in the paper is that humans do not assign value linearly. The author simply converted a point on a value curve into a dollar amount. Dollars are normally valued linearly with risk (.1 chance of 10 == 1 chance of 1), so he started doing linear calculations, then converte
        • My value/risk curve is not linear (and isn't likely to be, until we turn into perfectly rational beings).

          Actually, I take this back. Even being perfectly rational doesn't mean we'll have a linear value/risk curve.
      • by Wolfrider (856) <kingneutron@@@yahoo...com> on Thursday May 27, 2004 @03:18PM (#9270323) Homepage Journal
        --Oh, but don't stop there - you also have to nail the CxO's of major companies who make 55 Billion a year while driving the company into the ground, and then jump out the top-floor window with a Golden Parachute.

        --If you don't nail those guys, all that money gets held up and never reaches the system, donchaknow.
        [/CzarChasm]
    • by Cecil (37810) on Thursday May 27, 2004 @11:37AM (#9267135) Homepage
      Sodomy laws, marijuana laws, in the states. Man-and-woman marriage laws here in Canada. There is plenty of incentive to change laws when you have a vocal group supporting it.

      The problem is, despite all our technical advantages, computer geeks are a loose rabble compared to the well-organized and well-funded gay/lesbian rights groups and legalize pot groups.

      They have a single, focused goal, and they are going for it. What do we want? "Freedom". Not very specific, and few really agree on what the hell it means either. If we united all geeks under a "legalize reverse-engineering" banner, perhaps we'd have a better chance, but no one is passionate about that.
    • by corbettw (214229) <corbettw@@@yahoo...com> on Thursday May 27, 2004 @11:44AM (#9267223) Journal
      Politicians love to associate their names with "get tough on crime" laws that raise the punishment for certain crimes... but you rarely here about anybody supporting lower sentances for crimes.

      Yes, you're right. Why, just this morning on the way to work, I stopped by the town square to throw tomatoes at two blasphemers currently locked up in stocks. And I noticed one of my neighbors now has a very red "A" on her forehead. May have to stop by her place after work tonight, see if her cows need milking....
    • Rather then government, we should allow the marketplace to decide this issue: Personally I favor the employment of a small offshore mercenary army that stands ready at a moment's notice to kneecap a Netsky, bugger a Bugbear, Silence a Sasser, blow away a Beagle.. etc. In any endover it is always best to employ a professional who specializes in the specific field...
    • by DaHat (247651) on Thursday May 27, 2004 @11:54AM (#9267372) Homepage
      To quote what I think is the greatest book ever (Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand):

      "Did you really think that we want those laws to be observed? ... We want them broken. You'd better get it straight that it's not a bunch of boy scouts you're up against - then you'll know that this is not the age for beautiful gestures. We're after power and we mean it. You fellows were pikers, but we know the real trick, and you'd better get wise to it. There's no way to rule innocent men. The only power a government has is the power to crack down on criminals. Well, when there aren't enough criminals, one makes them. One declares so many things to be a crime that it becomes impossible for men to live without breaking laws. Who wants a nation of law-abiding citizens? What's there in that for anyone? But just pass the kind of laws that can neither be observed nor enforced nor objectively interpreted - and you create a nation of law-breakers - and then you cash in on guilt. Now that's the system, Mr. Reardon, that's the game."

      And now, to my thoughts:

      And there we have the underlying philosophy related to many drug laws. Once we have a blanket full of laws and penalties that many are likely to come up against now and then, we must differentiate them with the severity of their penalties, make the truly horrific punishments be those which no 'normal' upstanding citizen could ever commit, make them feel safe that they will never have to face life in prison or the chair for their vices, you leave them free to feel safe in their own law breaking knowing that the penalty for the minor things they do is trivial, but ultimately keep them feeling just guilty enough to keep them inline.
    • Sorry you're wrong (Score:4, Informative)

      by Anonymous Coward on Thursday May 27, 2004 @11:55AM (#9267384)
      It's just you.

      Some penalties for some crimes have gone up over the last 15 years (and some have gone) but over the last, say, 100 years, the severity of punishments served out has gone down dramatically. Think of the hanging judges in the wild west, or the justice system of any European country 150 years ago.

    • Now that you bring politicians into it, it could be argued that dishonest politicans 'hack' society and political structures that humanity needs to exist. After all, far more people have been killed by bad governments than bad technology.

      We should also take into consideration that since people emulate the behavior of their leaders, corrupt, selfish behavior quickly spreads through a society like a virus, rotting it away from the inside until it collapses. Like the chinese say, a fish rots from the head

    • by Plugh (27537) on Thursday May 27, 2004 @12:22PM (#9267731) Homepage
      It's true, folks:
      No government ever voluntarily reduces itself in size. Government programs, once launched, never disappear. Actually, a government bureau is the nearest thing to eternal life we'll ever see on this Earth.
      [source] [americanrhetoric.com]

      This means there is an inevitable tendancy of Government to restrict freedom ever more wretchedly. DMCA? Abusive patent ovverreach? PATRIOT? All merely corollaries of the root problem, my friends!

      That's why I am posting this: The Free State Project [freestateproject.org]

      As far as I can tell, it's our best chance to have a free society. Even ESR thinks so [blogspot.com] (whatever you think of him!)

  • by treehouse (781426) * on Thursday May 27, 2004 @11:12AM (#9266777)
    And spammers, and people who put spyware in the programs you buy, and companies which design operating systems so they won't run a competitor's apps, and company lawyers who keep you so busy fighting their lawsuits that you eventually just give in.

    "They never would be missed, They never would be missed."

    • Abu Ghraib (Score:3, Funny)

      by soloport (312487)
      So why destroy Abu Ghraib prisons in Iraq? Seems like a worthy use of these facilities!
    • by fiannaFailMan (702447) on Thursday May 27, 2004 @11:23AM (#9266950) Journal
      And peope who drive too slowly in the fast lane.
    • by Coneasfast (690509) on Thursday May 27, 2004 @11:46AM (#9267248)
      personally i think all these worms may be worthwhile in the long run, i mean they DO make people and microsoft aware of the vulnerabilities of windows and its security problems.

      instead of saying "we need to execute worm writers" maybe they should say "we need to secure windows"
    • by Skevin (16048) on Thursday May 27, 2004 @12:22PM (#9267727) Journal
      Speaking of rolling heads for crimes you don't otherwise consider worthy of capital punishment... In China, banks are run by the government, not private individuals, thus considered a public service. If you are in upper management, and you get caught embezzling funds, you *will* be executed (for the good of the People, of course). It's a great way to eliminate ambitious subordinates, literally.
      Also, during my time as a Parsons engineer in Saudi Arabia, Americans were often encouraged to view public executions (and beheading was within the order of the day). Some of those were for things we would consider corporate misdemeanors.
      Outside of my personal experience, I can think of plenty of countries where writing viruses will make you subject to the death penalty.

      Solomon Chang
  • by djh101010 (656795) * on Thursday May 27, 2004 @11:12AM (#9266785) Homepage Journal
    First, let's execute some spammers, _then_ we can move on to the virus & spyware folks. Viruses and worms only are a problem for one segment of the online population, spam has to be dealt with by all of us.
    • by moitz (65511) on Thursday May 27, 2004 @11:15AM (#9266834)
      Technically, murderers are only a problem for one segment of the population too...namely, the segment they're merrily killing off. Just because it's not you doesn't mean it's not a problem of concern.

      -moitz-
  • *snerk* (Score:3, Insightful)

    by Analise (782932) * <anaili@@@gmail...com> on Thursday May 27, 2004 @11:12AM (#9266786) Homepage Journal
    Well, there's a thought. Though some would say the punishment wouldn't really fit the crime. Unless a worm/virus/whanot caused someone's death because it screwed up the computer that ran air traffic control. Or, you know, something a bit less unlikely and somewhat more likely.

    Kind of scary the process by which people can take anything and reduce it to a number somehow. That's probably why I hated statistics class.
  • by baudilus (665036) on Thursday May 27, 2004 @11:12AM (#9266788)
    They may not fear death. I'd suggest limiting them to 33.6 kbps internet connections. That's the real hell.
  • Simple (Score:4, Insightful)

    by Anonymous Coward on Thursday May 27, 2004 @11:13AM (#9266791)
    Killing people is wrong. No matter who does it.
  • Wow (Score:3, Insightful)

    by elwell642 (754833) <hallmant@[ ]org ['dm.' in gap]> on Thursday May 27, 2004 @11:13AM (#9266801)
    Tounge-in-cheek or not, this article is comparing a person's life to a dollar figure. Now, I'm as much a fan of cleaning out virii as anyone else, but that's just messed up. How much is a human life worth?
    • Re:Wow (Score:3, Interesting)

      by baudilus (665036)
      It kinda depends on how much someone is willing to accept for the act of killing you. Crackheads will take $5, so I guess the answer to your question is: Five Dollars.

      Here's an interesting article [bovination.com] about the value of a life.
    • Re:Wow (Score:5, Interesting)

      by Hayzeus (596826) on Thursday May 27, 2004 @11:22AM (#9266936) Homepage
      Tounge-in-cheek or not, this article is comparing a person's life to a dollar figure. Now, I'm as much a fan of cleaning out virii as anyone else, but that's just messed up. How much is a human life worth?

      We perform this kind of calculus as a society all the time. When the national speed limit (in the US) was raised from 55mph, there was a predictable cost in human lives. In fact, the fact that we allow cars in the hands of private individuals at all has a steep cost in terms of human lives, and so we attempt to mitigate the cost to some extent with mandatory safetey features, license issuance, etc. The same can be said of alcohol and tobacco. The same kind of math goes on in wrongful death civil suits on a regular basis. Human life does indeed have some finite value, although that value seems to vary depending on the human or humans in question.

    • Re:Wow (Score:5, Informative)

      by pclminion (145572) on Thursday May 27, 2004 @11:25AM (#9266977)
      Tounge-in-cheek or not, this article is comparing a person's life to a dollar figure. Now, I'm as much a fan of cleaning out virii as anyone else, but that's just messed up. How much is a human life worth?

      According to the U.S. government, anywhere between $1 million and $6.3 million [tufts.edu].

      I seem to remember hearing that the U.S. military uses the value of $2 million per soldier. I can't verify that at the moment.

    • Re:Wow (Score:5, Interesting)

      by LostCluster (625375) * on Thursday May 27, 2004 @11:26AM (#9266989)
      Our legal system actually employs actuaries whose primary task is to compute the estimated earning potential and household work potential of a dead person based on what they had done at the time of their death and what statistics indicate what that person would have done in the future.

      It's a sick job, but somebody's got to do it in civil cases involving a wrongful death finding in order for there to be a dollar value assigned to the verdict.
    • Tounge-in-cheek or not, this article is comparing a person's life to a dollar figure. Now, I'm as much a fan of cleaning out virii as anyone else, but that's just messed up. How much is a human life worth?

      How about equating this in term of life-hours destroyed? A murder takes, at most, 872,000 hours (100 years) of one person's life. But a virus creator takes hours from each of millions of people's lives. The total "life lost" is worse with computer viruses.

      Moreover, I'd argue that the victim's life
      • I don't know about judging a cumulative effect as the same as a one time effect.

        If I give 100,000 people paper-cuts, causing them pain and wasting cumulatively a whole lifetime of hours when they take time out to apply band-aids, am I really as bad as someone who kills another person? Are people going to be afraid to go outside because of the paper-cut man? Are neighborhoods going to decay because of me?

        I don't think so.

        Even if a pickpocket steals from thousands of people over his lifetime, he is only
    • Re:Wow (Score:3, Insightful)

      by Grishnakh (216268)
      I would suggest that, using a utilitarian philosophy, a human life's worth is based on how much that person can contribute to society. Therefore, anyone who makes a positive contribution to society, whether they're janitors or farmers or engineers, is worth keeping around. However, spammers (along with serial killers, SCO executives, etc.) do only harm to society, and thus have a negative value. Removing them with a $0.10 bullet would greatly improve the lives of everyone else, and would be a large posit
  • While you're at it (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Safety Cap (253500) on Thursday May 27, 2004 @11:14AM (#9266807) Homepage Journal
    Execute the lazy/ignorant sysadmins and infrastructure guys who fail to keep their servers patched, have their firewalls set to "Allow all" and who leave the default passwords on their systems.
  • All we need... (Score:4, Insightful)

    by kneecarrot (646291) on Thursday May 27, 2004 @11:14AM (#9266809)
    Slammer and SoBIG and some of the other viruses have been costly and damaging, but nowhere NEAR as costly and damaging as a virus could be.

    As soon as there is a virus/trojan/etc. that spreads easily and is highly destructive (overwrites crucial hard drive sectors, for example) I think everyone will start seeing the punishment of virus writers in a whole new light.

  • by MrRuslan (767128) on Thursday May 27, 2004 @11:14AM (#9266813)
    by putting them in a room with a bunch of spammers on penis enlargement pills and viagra.
  • redamndiculous (Score:3, Insightful)

    by happyfrogcow (708359) on Thursday May 27, 2004 @11:17AM (#9266848)
    ok, if you are thinking about executing a person for writing a piece of malicious software (that didn't even cause any human harm), you need to step away from the computer, turn off the power, get out of your office and walk through the woods for a while.

    and if you come back and tell me "financial harm is human harm" i say go back and walk through the woods some more. maybe read a book while you are out there... something that doesn't mention computers. Something by Emerson.

  • by D-Cypell (446534) on Thursday May 27, 2004 @11:18AM (#9266875)
    I think that it would be even better to execute the senior management at companies that release their software to the general public while it is still full of holes that can be exploited by authors of malcious code...

    Infact... wasnt this what Tarintinos new flick is about... I havent seen it yet! ;o)
  • by hak1du (761835) on Thursday May 27, 2004 @11:19AM (#9266899) Journal
    The problem with capital punishment are that (1) it's irreversible, and (2) it is dangerous to give governments that kind of power. The economic costs resulting from these two properties of capital punishment are probably enormous. The first means that you need a complex judiciary and review process (and, in fact, executions seem to be more expensive than life imprisonment). The second means that it creates a serious risk that governments become totalitarian.

    I suspect the evidentiary situation for virus writers is even hazier than for your average murder, so capital punishment would, on balance, probably be worse.

    Incidentally, there is an easy way to avoid paying a high cost for the effects of viruses: don't let them infect your systems in the first place. And that's easy: keep them patched and up-to-date. So, while virus writing isn't nice, I think people whose systems get infected are contributing to the damage through their negligence. By comparison, while stealing cars is illegal, if you leave your car unlocked and running with the key in the ignition and it gets stolen, you won't get much sympathy from either the police or your insurance company.
  • Stupid Article (Score:5, Insightful)

    by TheFlyingGoat (161967) on Thursday May 27, 2004 @11:21AM (#9266917) Homepage Journal
    "Which would you rather have, the safety or the cash? Almost every American would take the cash; that's exactly what we learn from studies like Viscusi's."

    This is just dumb. Perhaps if the monetary value were higher than the 83 cents they've calculated. They also fail to take into account that the safety increase is not just for that individual, but also for everyone they care about. So, would you rather have 83 cents, or the knowledge that you, your family, and friends are slightly safer?

    Stupid, pointless article.

  • Grandma (Score:3, Insightful)

    by J_Omega (709711) on Thursday May 27, 2004 @11:21AM (#9266919)
    I first laughed at the simple concept of it.

    But what happens if a nasty worm/virus starts disrupting food transport, shredding hospital documents, places trains on the same track, open the doors in the CDC, route airplanes into skyscrapers?

    A properly designed infection could wreak havoc, and kill hundreds, thousands?

    I realize that I'm being overly dramatic, but there's probably a point where capital punishment WOULD be a justifiable answer.

  • Caveat Emptor (Score:4, Interesting)

    by lsw (95027) on Thursday May 27, 2004 @11:22AM (#9266927) Homepage

    While reading the article, just bear in mind that Slate is owned and paid by Microsoft.
  • by IWantMoreSpamPlease (571972) on Thursday May 27, 2004 @11:22AM (#9266934) Homepage Journal
    Want to eliminate certain types of crime?

    Make the punishment so harsh, no one will want to commit said crime.

    This either:

    (a) Solves the problem

    or

    (b) Turns your country into a police state.

    Which will it be?

    • Sigh.

      In the napoleonic era, a typical punishment for highway robbery was death. The punishment for plain old mugging was death. The punishment for burglary was death. The punishment for slipping a few florins from a stranger's pocket into one's own pocket was death. Crimes involving less personal contact were treated a bit more leniently -- the stealer of a sheep in the UK, for instance, could look forward to a mere 8 years or so in an Army penal battalion.

      Crime was high, though, much higher than it i
  • so.. (Score:3, Insightful)

    by radja (58949) on Thursday May 27, 2004 @11:22AM (#9266935) Homepage
    should we also execute fraudulent managers of big corporations?
  • Hear Hear!!! (Score:3, Interesting)

    by zulux (112259) on Thursday May 27, 2004 @11:24AM (#9266962) Homepage Journal
    I tired of "white-collar" crime that ruins family, lives, and dreams getting such light punishment.

    A ghetto-born man who kills a police officer gets executed.

    A suburb-born CPA that ruins the retirements of thousands of families gets a slap on the
    wrist.

    It's not fair, just, or right.
    • Re:Hear Hear!!! (Score:4, Insightful)

      by Ectospheno (724239) on Thursday May 27, 2004 @11:31AM (#9267053)
      I'm going to lose some karma on this one but somone has to respond to this silliness.

      A suburb-born CPA who kills a police officer gets executed.

      A ghetto-born man who ruins the retirements of thousands of families gets a slap on the wrist.

      The problem isn't one of race or money. The problem is that sentences don't match the crime. Your initial statement was correct but your example brings elements into the situation that merely cloud the actual point.

  • by fiannaFailMan (702447) on Thursday May 27, 2004 @11:29AM (#9267031) Journal
    Good to see that the style of Jonathan Swift's famous modest proposal [upenn.edu] for aleviating poverty in Ireland is still around. His idea was to treat impoverished Irish children as livestock to be fattened up for consumption. A tongue cannot become more firmly embedded in a cheek!
  • by Cryogenes (324121) on Thursday May 27, 2004 @11:31AM (#9267056)
    I would argue that virus and worm writers fulfill an important role in software ecology. Billions have been spent on making computers safer from Ninja, CodeRed and Sasser. Without these threats the money would not have been spent and nearly every PC would be wide open today. Can you see how much power that would give to those who do not fear the death penalty?

    If we were to kill all harmful bacteria today, infections will go back dramatically. But when, in 80 years, a new strain happens to come into existence, nobody will have any immunity system and humanity will be wiped in 24 hours.
  • by DocSnyder (10755) on Thursday May 27, 2004 @11:33AM (#9267080)
    As soon as someone shouts for capital punishment after IT crimes, writing viruses or sending spam would be the least of all cases, compared to intellectual property violations. RIAA, MPAA, BSA and others would like to see thousands of software/media pirates executed. These associations have much more power than all anti-spam initatives together.
  • by Digital_Quartz (75366) on Thursday May 27, 2004 @11:39AM (#9267159) Homepage
    A virus writer creates a computer virus which causes a minor inconvenience for a relatively large number of people (and a major inconvenience for a few system administrators). Keep in mind that these people are the people who open up a word document called "I love you".

    A murderer kills someone. He ends their life, forever. They will no longer feel happiness, or sadness, or laugh, or click on "I love you" attachments". A murderer devastates the lives of the countless people who are friends and family of their victim.

    These two acts are not comparable. An "equivalent punishment", be it captial (which I'm opposed to in either crime) or some other, only makes sense if you have a greatly over-inflated view of the "value" of economics.
  • by Bluesman (104513) on Thursday May 27, 2004 @11:41AM (#9267180) Homepage
    I think this is quite interesting.

    When estimating the value of human life when making laws, a decent estimate would probably be the value of that life to society.

    I'd pay quite a bit to continue my own life, or someone in my family, but that's for selfish and sentimental reasons only. Odds are, people in Montana couldn't care less whether I live or die, despite what some might say to the contrary. There are only a small amount of people who are actually aware and affected by my existence.

    A simple means of measuring an individual's effect on society as a whole then is the economic impact that person would have over his lifetime. Like him or not, Bill Gates will obviously have a much greater impact on society over his lifetime than your average joe. Many more people have an interest in his continued well-being than they have an interest in mine.

    Should this be weighed when making laws? I don't know. It would seem to me that since Bill Gates has a measurably greater impact on society, he deserves greater compensation for wrongs done to him and also has more responsibility to do the right thing, knowing that his actions affect millions.

    But the economic impact is not the only consequence of crime. I'm not scared to walk through a bad neighborhood at night because I think Martha Stewart is going to jump out of the bushes and rob me. Her crime has little impact on the order of society and the perceived safety of its citizens.

    Similarly, should we prosecute someone who kills a homeless man? They have little impact on society, and their lives aren't worth as much in economic terms. I think, however, most people would reject the idea that some murders are more ok than others based on economic reasons.

  • by curlyFry (655373) on Thursday May 27, 2004 @11:42AM (#9267184)
    One of the major assumptions by the author of the article (and most people) is that the death penalty deters murder. It doesn't.

    Check out The Death Penalty Inormation Center [deathpenaltyinfo.org] for more facts, info, and studies.

    All of the authors economic number crunching is totally invalid because of this. :(
    However that doesn't mean that I don't WANT to execute them. ;P
  • by ltsmash (569641) on Thursday May 27, 2004 @11:44AM (#9267212)
    The base problem with this article is the author actually believes you can put a dollar value on life. Once one believes this, crazy statements like this follow:

    "Execute the people who write computer worms"

    "Harvard professor Kip Viscusi estimates the value of a life at $4.5 million overall, $7 million for a blue-collar male and $8.5 million for a blue collar female"
  • by Satan's Librarian (581495) * <mike@codevis.com> on Thursday May 27, 2004 @11:45AM (#9267237) Homepage
    .. is that the language often used for these pranks is cyberterrorism, and it's already a pretty serious felony. Now, there could be such a thing, but most of what I've seen coming from virus writers are teenagers playing pranks.

    Since we've thrown the entire world on one ad-hoc network without securing anything, those pranks are damned expensive right now and there's a real problem. But.... most of the people causing these untold trillions of dollars of damage are bored teenagers, just as antisocial as a lot of other teenagers who are out smashing post office boxes, spray painting walls, and sniffing glue, that happen to be somewhat adept at using a computer.

    There do seem to be a few pro's in the field that could be linked to the spam operations and possibly even corporate and government espionage, but they're still seriously in the minority.

    So - does some kid doing something stupid warrant destroying the rest of the kid's life? Do these kids really understand the consequences of what they're doing and what kind of destruction they're causing? I think in most cases - no, they don't. In the rest, well - they're still kids. Punish them, let them know what they did was wrong, but don't try to lock them up for the rest of their lives or bury them under the jail for what to them seemed like a funny prank. There's a huge difference between creating a piece of code and shooting someone in the head.

    I think we need to do two things.

    1. Secure the damn networks so that your average 14-year old geek can't cause billions of dollars worth of damage with a few days of work.
    2. Educate our kids in a more compassionate way, teaching them ethics and responsibility along with computer skills rather than sending them to a meat-grinder / day-care that does nothing but frustrate halfway intelligent people that want to learn something.

  • by funbobby (445204) on Thursday May 27, 2004 @11:49AM (#9267291)
    Given that Microsoft will write software that can be exploited, I'd much rather have it exploited by something that reboots my machine and some script kiddie gets a kick out of it, than have it exploited secretly and repeatedly by someone with worse motives. If we didn't have these occasional public displays of how insecure our software is, it would be far easier for other people to take advantage of it, people like the terrorists and governments. That would be a hell of a lot worse than having all your machines reboot, or even losing a hard drive here and there.

    The real solution is quality software, and punishing virus writers won't get us any closer to that.

    This argument is of course only valid as long as the viruses are relatively benign.
  • Virtual Death... (Score:4, Insightful)

    by MojoRilla (591502) on Thursday May 27, 2004 @11:49AM (#9267297)
    For a virtual crime, the right punishment probably should be virtual death. Lifetime ban on using computers.

    That might make a hacker think twice.
  • by G. W. Bush Junior (606245) on Thursday May 27, 2004 @11:50AM (#9267309) Journal
    Let's do the math. What do we get out of executing a murderer? Deterrence. A high-end estimate is that each execution deters about 10 murders. (The highest estimate I've ever seen is 24 murders deterred per execution, but the closest thing to a consensus estimate in the econometric literature is about eight.) That's 10 lives saved...

    Now, I'm no expert on these matters, but would there really be ten times more murders in america if capital punishment was substituted with life in prison?
    That number sounds completely ridicoulous to me. I would probably put that number lower than 2 and closer to 1... without taking the time to compare [disastercenter.com] all 38 states with capital punishment to those who don't it doesn't look like theres anywhere near a factor of ten difference between them.

    this article looks like yet another example of the fact that 86.2% of all statistics are made up on the spot.
    • Good question. Especially considering that most countries that have abandoned capital punishment have a *lot* lower murder-rates than does USA.

      Yes, sure, correlation does not proove causation, we all know that. Still, I'm pretty sure the added deterrent effect of capital punishment over lifetime prison is pretty much unproven.

  • by N8F8 (4562) on Thursday May 27, 2004 @11:52AM (#9267328)
    1) Script kiddie writes virus
    2) If virus is successful you hire the writer to continue writing viruses.
    3) Writing virisus becomes exponentially more difficult as easy exploits are found and patched.

    Result: Stronger software. Instead of wasting time paying people trained to create things to discover the flaws that destroy things, you hire specialists who have the correct mindset.
  • by blueZhift (652272) on Thursday May 27, 2004 @11:53AM (#9267355) Homepage Journal
    While it sounds cool on the surface to kill the vermiscripters (along with the lawyers and the spammers), it seems that we're creating new despised classes of people for the digital age. Geeks and nerds have never been very popular to begin with, and now the government is getting in a position where it can finally punish this despised class just as ethnic minorities have similarly suffered disproportionately at the hands of the government. For my money, I'd still rather get the truly violent off the streets rather than offing some pimply faced hacker.

    So let's hope that this talk of killing virus writers won't become more than talk. Next thing you know, the Department of Justice will be rounding up file sharers for RIAA...oh wait...

  • Crap (Score:3, Insightful)

    by Fuzzums (250400) on Thursday May 27, 2004 @11:58AM (#9267441) Homepage
    How many viruswriters / hackers continue writing viruses / hacking after they got caught, convicted, served time and were released? How many viruswriters / hackers get job in the computersecurity industry and thus contribute to society?

    How many murderers continue murdering after they got caught, convicted, served time and were released? How many murderers get a job with the police / FBI and thus contribute to society?
  • by Minna Kirai (624281) on Thursday May 27, 2004 @12:09PM (#9267578)
    This is a stimulating article, even if it's silly on the face of it. A mishmash of quick responses:
    1. Don't anyone overreact and think he's seriously proposing that virus-authors be put to death, any more than John Swift wanted to eat babies [art-bin.com]. The article is just a conversation piece- by applying rational thought to some initial premises and arriving at an absurd conclusion, Sandburg has demonstrated that some of (or all) of those premises must be false. Garbage in, garbage out. The incorrect starting assumptions:
      1. Viruses/worms cause $50 billion in damage each year. In fact, they do much less, and even have beneficial effects (see below)
      2. The US inflicts capital punishment as a deterrent to crime. But they really do it for the refreshing feeling of vengenance. If they actually wanted to deter crime, then publically beating or maiming convicts (like in Saudi Arabia) would be not only more effective, but also more merciful.
      3. Criminal punishment has a rational basis. This is rarely if ever the case- it's mostly emotional/politcal propaganda.
    2. As an intellectual exercise, Sandburg proposed an extreme punishment for virus writing and then examined the consequences. For a related mental exercise, suppose the punishment went towards the other extreme: writing a virus is a $10 fine and 8 hours of community service.

      What would be the consequence of the government refusing to punish virus-authors? It would amount to a privatization of software security. (And isn't privatization supposed to give us faster and more efficient results than government control?) Publishers like Microsoft would have no choice but to make security job #1, or be ruined in the marketplace. It'd be sink-or-swim... and those product-lines which survived would be hardened fortresses of supreme security.

      Reducing the punishment to virus-authors is equivalent to removing a government subsidy on sellers of insecure software- and cutting a subsidy always unleashes the free market to do it's optimizing work.
    3. Virus/worm-writers are one subset of criminals who exploit insecure software. They're vandals or pranksters- they don't profit from their crimes, or work very hard to keep them secret. But there are frauds and gangsters who may also exploit those failures- and they'll try to do it without attracting much attention.

      Worm authors are like punk kids who break into corporate offices or bank vaults and kick over all the furniture before running away. Yes, they've caused some inconvenience in knocking stuff over, which can equate to lost chance for revenue, which is somewhat like damage. But they've also revealed a gaping security flaw in a way that the company can no longer deny and will thus fix before real thieves start to use it. Most of the "costs" attributed to worm-authors are actually spending to fix security holes that should've been done anyhow.

      Software is more secure today than it would be if nobody wrote worms and virues.
    4. Sandburg says that virus-writers would be deterred by the prospect of the death penalty. Let's assume that's true... but can you think of some people who aren't afraid of execution? What about today's murderers? What about terrorists?

      If in 40 years Osama BinLaden Jr discovers a flaw in Microsoft(tm) WindowsGJ44(r), he might be able to cripple the world economy and kill thousands of people- and he's already accepted his own death, so the threat of one more execution won't stop him.
    5. One of this same author's earlier columns was one of the most absurd things I've ever read. Look at it and laugh [msn.com]. Can you spot what's so wrong with this paragraph?
      1. $2 million a day. It's difficult for one to even imagine what it would be like to have that kind of pure income. But it won't be as difficult for your grandchildren. If U.S. per capi
  • by mseeger (40923) on Thursday May 27, 2004 @12:17PM (#9267680)
    What do we get out of executing a murderer? Deterrence. A high-end estimate is that each execution deters about 10 murders. (The highest estimate I've ever seen is 24 murders deterred per execution, but the closest thing to a consensus estimate in the econometric literature is about eight.)

    I hate to see such rubbish published, even if the article is half joking. You may get deterrence but you also get brutalization. Personally i doubt there will be a positive (lives saved) balance. Crime figures of countries with and without capital punishment leave some doubts concerning this. But the point is not about capital punishment.

    Why do we have courts and just don't hang'em high? Because "Deterrence" is only a secondary goal of serving justice. The primary goal ist restoration of judicial peace. If we forget this, we may also toss the idea of the rule of law outside out of the window. Punishment may be one measure to achieve it. All those strange procedures during prosecution and at court are to ensure that in the end, even if the ruling is faulty, we have a state of judical peace.

    This notion may seem strange, but you always have to be aware, that there can never be a "perfect justice".

    Regards, Martin

  • A Modest Proposal (Score:3, Informative)

    by rk (6314) on Thursday May 27, 2004 @12:28PM (#9267789) Journal

    Jeez, people, it's satire! This form of satire has been around for a long time [art-bin.com]. I love how someone can write a "punishments go up, never down" hyperbole and another can write "how can we compare human life to a dollar figure?" (Hint: It's done all the time [behan.ws]) and it gets modded insightful. I hope the original posters were extending the joke, but somehow, I get the sense that they were posting in earnest.

    If you don't see the humor in this article, I beg of you to abstain from watching Farrelly Brothers and Austin Powers movies and recommend you pick up some books and read some Jonathan Swift or Oscar Wilde, to name a couple. There's more to humor than dick and fart jokes, and if you understand that, I'm sure you'll live longer.

  • by nukey56 (455639) on Thursday May 27, 2004 @12:33PM (#9267860)
    I for one welcome our organ-bank overlords!
  • by xyote (598794) on Thursday May 27, 2004 @01:08PM (#9268347)
    From Duck Soup I think.

    Chico: (menacingly)I kill people for money. (looks at Harpo) I kill you for money.
    Harpo: (looks worried)
    Chico: (smiles). No, I no kill you for money. You my friend. I kill you for free.
    Harpo: (smiles in relief)


    I'm sure killing spammers will be very economic as many people would be willing to do it for free.

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