What To Do About the Zombie Lord Next Door?

Police in Quebec staged a series of raids this morning on young hackers located in Montreal and elsewhere throughout the province, arresting 17 computer users and confiscating numerous machines. RCMP allege the gang controlled a bot network of nearly a million computers in 100 countries. The arrests were the result of an ongoing investigation that started in 2006.

To be sure, naive users play a part in the vulnerabilities that these hackers exploit. Without proper firewalls and antivirus software, most consumer desktops are easy to take over. And botnets are getting nastier. They’re used in everything from online attacks to identity theft. Increasingly, the bot networks can also fight back against those who try to stop them: In 2007, the Storm worm launched DDOS attacks against researchers trying to study it. Cyberattacks in Estonia, as well as the highly publicized death of anti-spam startup Blue Security, were launched from such networks.

What does the legal system do about crimes that are easy to commit but whose effects to are potentially devasting? In the past, legislation has imposed a disproportionate penalty. Horse thievery was common in the Old West; it was easy to do, and it could ruin the victim. So horse thieves were treated harshly.

Similarly, criminals who shaved the metal from the edges of coins were given the death sentence. In his book “The Death Penalty as Monetary Policy: The Practice and Punishment of Monetary Crime,” Carl Wennerlind writes that, “since the social fabric was increasingly constituted as a set of exchange relations, an assault on money was therefore considered an attack on the entire social form.”

Historically, when the effects of the crime are far greater than the difficulty of committing them, we’ve used the threat of excessive penalties as a deterrent. If today’s social fabric is a series of online transactions, it won’t be long before legislators consider this behavior an attack on “the entire social form.” And then we’ll have to decide what to do about the zombie lord next door.