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Computers in Court

Technology Review, April 1982


With some 12,000 computers humming away in various government branches in 1976, Abraham Ribicoff, then a U.S. Senator from Connecticut, sensed a tempting target for data defrauders and instituted an investigation into federal computer security.

What he found alarmed him. An Internal Revenue Service employee had used a computer scam to embezzle $650,000 before being caught. And government auditors routinely testing security at the Social Security Administration, one of the world’s largest computer facilities, were able to make off with computer tapes containing the names, addresses, and histories of more than a million beneficiaries.

The criminal justice system was ill-equipped to detect, investigate, or prosecute computer fraud, Senator Ribicoff declared. Some 40 federal statutes could be used to combat swindlers, but most of these predated the computer revolution. “Federal prosecutors are handicapped,” he said, “because there is no law making computer crime a crime.”

The First Act
In 1977, Senator Ribicoff introduced the Federal Computer Systems Protection Act. Designed to “give federal prosecutors a better weapon,” the bill attempted to define computer crime and outline penalties for offenses…