Thou shalt not vandalize Web pages. Thou shalt not shut down Web sites. Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor’s MP3s.
FBI agents are spreading a new gospel to parents and teachers, hoping they’ll better educate youths that vandalism in cyberspace can be economically costly and just as criminal as mailbox bashing and graffiti spraying.
The Justice Department and the Information Technology Association of America, a trade group, has launched the Cybercitizen Partnership to encourage educators and parents to talk to children in ways that equate computer crimes with old-fashioned wrongdoing.
The nascent effort includes a series of seminars around the country for teachers, classroom materials and guides and a Web site to help parents talk to children.
“In a democracy in general, we can’t have the police everywhere,” said Michael Vatis, director of the FBI’s National Infrastructure Protection Center, which guards against computer attacks by terrorists, foreign agents and teen hackers.
“One of the most important ways of reducing crime is trying to teach ethics and morality to our kids. That same principle needs to apply to the cyber world,” he said.
Recognizing Virtual Crime
Vatis and other FBI agents attended a kickoff seminar, titled the National Conference on Cyber Ethics, last weekend at Marymount University in Arlington, Va.
Part of the challenge: Many teens still consider computer mischief harmless. A recent survey found that 48 percent of students in elementary and middle school don’t consider hacking illegal.
Gail Chmura, a computer science teacher at Oakton High School in Vienna, Va., makes ethics a constant in her curriculum, teaching kids about topics such as computer law, software piracy and online cheating.
She has argued with students who don’t see that stealing from a computer with bad security is as wrong as stealing from an unlocked house.
“It’s always interesting that they don’t see a connection between the two,” Chmura said. “They just don’t get it.”
The FBI’s Vatis tells students, “Do you think it would be OK to go spray-paint your neighbor’s house or the grocery store down the street? On a Web site, it’s the same sort of thing. It’s somebody’s storefront or an extension of themselves.”
Chmura tries similar messages. For instance, she asks a budding composer how he would feel if his music was stolen and given away online.
“They do sometimes realize that when they’re copying someone’s product, it’s not just that 5 cent disk, but someone’s work that they’re copying,” she said. “I think they do come to appreciate the fact that it’s somebody’s salary they’re stealing.”
Driving Home Consequences
Vatis cites a long list of cyber crimes perpetrated by minors, including attacks on defense department computers in 1998 and the February jamming of major Web sites such as Amazon.com and eBay.
He tries to drive home the consequences of hacking — including the resources it drains from his center, as law enforcement scrambles to find who is responsible at the outset of an attack.
Authorities “don’t know if it’s a terrorist or a foreign military,” Vatis said. “It diverts very scarce resources of people who are trying to focus on crime, warfare and terrorism.”
And children aren’t the only ones in need of training. College students and parents also are frequently undecided about what crosses an ethical boundary in cyberspace, where anyone can download pirated musical recordings.
“We had some discussion about the legalities of whether you’re sharing something with your friend or burning CDs to sell at your school,” said Deborah Price of Lewisville, N.C., parent of a 14-year-old daughter. “I’m not real certain about Napster ethics myself.”
Price — whose daughter uses Napster, the music-sharing service considered a threat to the recording industry — feels that computer ethics are an important issue.
“I think it should be part of the discussion at the school,” Price said. “It’s only going to get bigger.”