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A deadly computer virus?

In the Publisher’s Page of the January/February 1996 issue, Bill Aldridge wrote of his experiences with a computer virus that wreaked havoc with his computer and set him back in his work. While musing on the motivations of the person who created the virus and the possible consequences of his handiwork, Aldridge wrote:

“Of course, this person had no idea who would suffer from his act. Perhaps a hospital somewhere lost its computer system and several people died as a result—who knows?”

Not long after this issue was published, the following article appeared in the Russian newspaper Izvestia.

Death from a Computer Virus

by Andrey Rumyantsev

(Izvestia, January 23, 1996)

All the noise in the press about computer networks in the banking industry being broken into has given us reason to think that we can expect to see a rise in computer crime. But the reality of it has proved worse than the predictions. Now the victims of computer crimes are not only banks, but people. During a seminar entitled “Information Security and Problems in Fighting Computer Crime” held last week in Moscow within the framework of an international “technology security” forum, a chilling fact was brought to light.

A certain author of computer viruses from St. Petersburg (his name and whereabouts are known) decided to show his “colleagues” the level of his “art.” To this end he wrote a rather complicated virus and inserted it into the popular antivirus program “Aidstest.” Then he posted this infected program on the city’s BBS’s. (BBS’s are electronic bulletin boards that one can connect with over an ordinary telephone line by means of a modem and upload one’s computer programs or download programs uploaded by others.)

Given the popularity of Aidstest, it’s not surprising that the virus hidden inside the infected program began to spread quickly through St. Petersburg. Several businesses soon suffered from it. But the worst was still ahead.

The virus found its way into two hospital pediatric wards, whose computerized diagnostic systems crashed as a result. Two children died. Of course, “after this” doesn’t always mean “because of this.” Specialists assert, however, that the direct cause for the computer crashes in these hospitals was precisely this virus.

Unfortunately, law enforcement agencies weren’t informed immediately. It’s possible that the doctors were afraid, since the infected program didn’t walk into their departments under its own power—it was obtained from a BBS by their own personnel, although it’s possible to obtain a “clean” program directly from a software firm, and antivirus programs are certainly affordable for even the most strapped health care facility.

The greatest share of the blame falls, of course, on the author of the virus. His actions might be categorized according to article 106 of the Criminal Code, “Negligent homicide,” with a maximum sentence of up to three years in prison.

But it isn’t that simple. Homicides are investigated by the prosecutor’s office. The computer crime division is in the Ministry of Internal Affairs, while the methodology for investigating computer crimes is being most successfully developed in the Federal Security Service [the former KGB]. The situation is such that computer crimes are being committed here, but it’s as if they don’t exist, because that is the current structure of the Criminal Code, which doesn’t set the corpora delicti for crimes of this nature. And there are no statistics on computer crime.

The parents of the children who died have no doubts that the computer virus was to blame.

(Translated by T. M. Weber)

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Copyright 1996 National Science Teachers Association
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