Documentary: The Day of the Technopath (1989)

The October 11th, 1989 Dispatches episode – The Day of the Technopath – explores computer security threats of the era. This documentary is particularly interesting because very common problems today are discussed at their infancy: organized crime first experimenting with cybercrime, threats to critical infrastructure, computer espionage by foreign nation states as well as cyber warfare. The Day of the Technopath features a wide array of sources ranging from journalists and politicians to computer hackers and security experts.

The documentary begins with a cautionary tail told by a British politician, Emma Nicholson, about potential threats viruses and computer miscreants pose to the country’s economy and national security. According to Mel Croucher, a journalist and a video games writer, the new computer underground has transformed from young amateurs looking for a bit of mischief to the one filled by adult professionals out to make a profit.

Several examples of malicious code are discussed by Dr. Jan Hruska, founder of Sophos, and Mark Drew, Information Security Manager at IBM UK. The first example was one of the first examples of a computer worm that propagated by sending copies of itself to all people in compromised users’ contact book. The virus enticed users to execute it by promising to display a “Christmas card”, hence the name – Christmas Tree virus. Christmas Tree virus resulted in high network traffic and outages.

The second program discussed in the documentary was called Datacrime. The virus was designed to silently infect programs (.com files). The virus would activate after October 13th of any year once any of the infected executables were ran resulting in local disks being formatted. There are several other examples discussed of viruses infecting critical computers such as British Rail and Polltech.

Next, the documentary explores computer hacking as an innocent mischief. One example was the hack of British Telecom’s Prestel viewdata service by Robert Schifreen and Stephen Gold. The compromise allowed the two to log in to arbitrary mailboxes on the system including the one belonging to Prince Philip. Interestingly, because Britain did not have sufficient legislature in place to prosecute, the case was dismissed. The Computer Misuse Act 1990 was introduced partly in response to this case. The Day of the Technopath illustrates the wide variety of computer hacker personas by interviewing Barbara Hammet le Brun, a French baroness, painter, musician and recreational hacker.

The film concludes with a section on computer fraud, copyright infringement, industrial espionage and the lack of police training or legislature to combat these crimes. One example of organized crime getting involved in computer crimes was the embezzlement case against Prudential-Bache Securities where approximately 8 million pounds were stolen by a disgruntled employee and siphoned though 4 different countries in order to conceal its final destination. A major gap in law enforcement education is identified where only a small percentage of British police force went through a brief 4 week training course on computer crime.

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