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Needed: a federal law to curb computer eavesdroppers

''They have nothing to gain by getting into the computer, just thrills.'' That was how an official of one well-known hospital in New York recently described the latest bizarre development in what has become a too frequent occurrence throughout the United States: using home computers to gain unauthorized access to prominent national computer systems.

The phenomenon is vividly portrayed in the movie ''WarGames,'' where a budding young computer whiz from Seattle almost precipitates World War III by gaining access to a military computer.

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The Pentagon argues that such a possibility is unlikely, since most of its computers are not linked into other computer grids or networks, as is the case with many computer systems in private industry. Yet the tales of

known penetrations of computers suggests that very few systems may be safe. In just recent weeks and months: a former government employee was able to tap into the Federal Reserve Board computer system; a group of young people in Milwaukee who call themselves the ''414s'' - named after the city's telephone area code - tampered with a computer at the Los Alamos, N.M., nuclear weapons laboratory; and there was a penetration into the Memorial Sloan-Kettering center in New York.

The time is at hand for tough, no-nonsense laws to discourage such illicit break-ins.

National security considerations alone justify such legislation. But there is also a right-to-privacy need to prevent intrusion into information pertaining to virtually all Americans. Just consider the vast range of financial, tax, business, and investment information that is on file in government, banking, and credit bureau computer banks.

But, the reader might ask, is not the unauthorized disclosure of such information prohibited by law? Well, yes and no. Currently some 40 different federal statutes (such as those concerning postal fraud or telephone company fraud) are believed to deal with the whole issue of computer theft.

In addition, some 18 states have laws in this area. In most cases, the laws deal with the theft of property and redefine the concept of property to include computer-based information.

What is needed, however, is specific and codified national legislation designed to prevent the type of unauthorized disclosures brought to light in recent months. A measure introduced by Florida Congressman Bill Nelson would do just that. Hearings on the bill will be held in September. Meanwhile, a separate measure before the committee, which also seems useful, would provide for a study of the impact of computer theft on the small business community.

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Computer information firms obviously have their work cut out for them in keeping the eavesdroppers and break-in artists at bay. That means that better security systems will have to be developed, yet not made so tight as to prevent authorized users from entering computer grids as appropriate. Detection methods will also have to be refined so that computer thefts can be quickly spotted. Most important, stiff legal penalties are warranted for those persons who deliberately break into computer systems.

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