Roger Riordan: Career

Part of a (very!) early Vet ad.

Virus prosecution fiasco

I know of only one case in Victoria where the police tried to prosecute someone for spreading viruses. The original "crime" occurred at Swinburne Institute of Technology (a former Technical College in the inner suburbs of Melbourne), in the early 90s. By then there were a dozen or more viruses lurking in Melbourne's computers. Most of them were fairly harmless, but a few were destructive, and viruses had become a major problem for management.

At the time it was fairly standard for computers (especially those accessible to students) to be booted from floppy disks, leaving them wide open to infection. After several infections, the authorities at Swinburne had became paranoid about this, and issued an edict that their computers were always to be booted from an approved floppy disk, and laboratory monitors were appointed whose job it was to look after these approved discs, and to issue them to any student who wanted to use a computer.

There was one student with an unfortunate personality who was universally disliked, and one lunchtime a lecturer saw him go into the lab, go to the first vacant computer, and boot from his own floppy. He then moved on to a second vacant computer and repeated the process. The lecturer assumed that he was deliberately spreading a virus, challenged him, tested the computer, and found it to be "infected", so he kicked him out and reported him to the management. He did not seize the students boot disc. The management lodged a complaint with the police, and in due course the student was charged with spreading viruses, and found guilty.

The student then appealed, and at this point I was asked to advise the defence. The test on which the College had based their case simply showed that the actual boot sector did not match the boot sector on their approved boot disks. The students boot disk was then examined (though there was no evidence that it was the same as the one he had used some months before) and found to match the sector on the "infected" PC. However someone else who had looked at it had recognised it as a standard boot sector for a slightly different model PC. I examined the two sectors and established that they were functionally identical, so there was no evidence whatever that a virus had ever been present.

The defence also got statements from other students using the same labs, who all agreed that more often than not the laboratory monitors were nowhere to be found, and all the students had their own boot disks. Furthermore the computers were notoriously unreliable, and it was quite common to have to try several computers before finding one that worked.

The appeal was upheld, and the defendant was awarded costs against the police -- I believe a very unusual occurrence. The police decided that in future they would would leave well alone, and never attempted to prosecute anyone else for spreading viruses.

 © Roger Riordan 2004-2019

An ill-advised prosecution