NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis


July 20, 2005

Wimpy punishments do not seem to deter computer hackers and spreaders of malicious viruses and worms, says New York Times columnist Tierney. The proper punishment, he suggests, might be execution.

A recent cost-benefit analysis by Steven Landsburg (University of Rochester) shows the spreaders of computer viruses and worms are more logical candidates for capital punishment than murders are.

Landsburg calculated the relative value to society of executing murders and hackers. He argues:

  • The benefits of executing a hacker would be greater because the social costs of hacking are estimated to be so much higher, at least $50 billion per year.
  • Deterring a mere one-fifth of one percent of those crimes would save society $100 million.

Landsburg believes a lot more than one in 500 hackers would be deterred by the sight of a colleague on death row. Tierney agrees but also sees some practical difficulties. For example, capital punishment is illegal in many places and most hackers are teenage boys, a group not known for fearing death. In fact, they are probably more afraid of going five years without computer games.

The experts aren't sure that any punishment could fit the crime, according to Tierney, but they had several suggestions: Make the hacker spend 16 hours a day fielding help-desk inquiries in an AOL chat room for computer novices. Force him to do this with a user name at least as uncool as KoolDude and to work on a vintage IBM PC with a 2400-baud dial-up connection. Most painful of all for any geek, make him use Windows 95 for the rest of his life.

Source: John Tierney, "Worse Than Death," New York Times, July 12, 2005.

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