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A warning label for computers. Programmers and designers speak out on dangers of high-tech

ALTHOUGH the average computer does not carry a warning label saying it may be dangerous to your welfare, a group of computer designers and programmers is spreading the message that their technology is not as harmless as it appears. The 2,000-member national organization, calling itself Computer Professionals for Social Responsibility (CPSR), has raised a host of concerns, from the ``spying'' of computer terminals on their operators to the place of computers in police investigations and national defense.

``Computers have seeped into our lives in ways we never expected,'' says Severo Ornstein, co-founder of CPSR, who insists that their increasingly complex and critical role calls for a knowledgeable watchdog.

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Those who create computer systems, CPSR maintains, are in the best position to educate the public about limitations and potential misuses of computer progress. Through a combination of open meetings, publications, and congressional testimony, the group is hoping to make a difference in how computers are employed.

Much of CPSR's attention has focused on computers in nuclear weapons. The group was formed in 1983 when Mr. Ornstein and his wife, Laura Gould, both computer designers in Palo Alto, Calif., began to doubt that the ``star wars'' defense program would work, on grounds that certain computerized components could not be tested adequately.

CPSR likewise contends that a ``launch on warning'' program for existing weapons could give a cataclysmic new meaning to ``computer error.'' Upon sensing an opposing missile, the proposed system would trigger nuclear retaliation without permitting human intervention, the group cautions.

In these ways, CPSR resembles the better-known Physicians for Social Responsibility, which has warned of the medical consequences of nuclear war. But computer designers are more closely connected to the problem, says Ornstein.

``In 1945, physicists took enormous responsibility for their work after creating the atom bomb,'' he points out. ``Suddenly we're the people at the cutting edge of weapons development: Ninety percent of our nuclear weapons have computer components.''

``Computer science is the technology driving the weapons race,'' says CPSR executive director Gary Chapman, adding that the organization usually attracts upper-level designers who may see more clearly where their work is leading.

CPSR has enlarged its agenda as it has expanded to 14 chapters, most of them in high-technology and research centers like Seattle and Boston.

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Bringing the right to privacy into the computer age has become a priority, and the organization warns that laws regulating the tapping of telephones and the opening of mail need to better protect computer communications. CPSR also challenges the ways in which computers monitor the work habits and private conversations of those at the keyboard.

A computerized data base for the National Crime Information Center has similarly made the watchdog in CPSR bark. While law enforcers from the Federal Bureau of Investigation to local police can track criminals with unprecedented ease, the potential exists, CPSR officials say, for unprecedented harm to the civil liberties of people who are mistakenly implicated.

Besides increasing public awareness, though, CPSR has enabled people within the computer field to voice the moral dilemmas they are facing on the job.

``You're never sure how flexible your employer will be,'' says Adonica Gieger, a software engineer who recently declined to work on a weapons-tracking project for her company, based in Cambridge, Mass.

Despite her reassignment, Ms. Gieger worries. ``It's very difficult to determine in your own mind the degree to which your work will be used for good or ill,'' she says. She cites computer breakthroughs that simulate the human eye but soon may guide unmanned tanks.

Hank Bromley, from CPSR's chapter in Madison, Wis., adds that it is possible to lose track of human needs amid the thrill of making technological advances. Gains in artificial intelligence, for instance, can result in the displacement of workers by machines.

CPSR members are finding their misgivings pitted against a widespread popular perception that computers can do no wrong.

``There is a worship of computer technology because it's solved so many problems,'' Ornstein says. ``But our problems have become so desperately complex - like deterring a nuclear attack - that people don't have solutions for them.''

Not every concerned member of the computer field agrees with this approach. ``It's incumbent on aware professionals to educate the populace, but it's up to the populace to decide what changes are necessary,'' says Fernando Corbato, associate head of computer science at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Neither will change come readily, Professor Corbato emphasizes. ``Most computer companies can quite correctly say, `We're not going to be the ones to decide how to use our products,''' he explains.

CPSR's leaders themselves concede that the present value of computerization makes it difficult to criticize. ``There are people who believe we should have a strong defense and that we should be prepared,'' says Ornstein. The public also depends on crime fighters to be as informed as possible and on intensive-care units to function with maximum efficiency, Ms. Gould adds.

But, Ornstein concludes, ``You need to fret about what can go wrong, and there's a tendency for people to think that computers don't make mistakes.''