Ashcroft sets sights on cybercrime
By Scott Harris
(IDG) -- Like a new sheriff bent on bringing law and order to the wilds of the Internet, Attorney General John Ashcroft has announced plans to form nine new specialized prosecutorial posses "dedicated to fighting crime in cyberspace" and eradicating a perception of "lawlessness."
Coming on the heels of the FBI's arrest of a Russian computer programmer accused of violating digital copyright law, Ashcroft's announcement underscored a broader emphasis on enforcement of computer crime -- everything from economic espionage to the theft of computer components -- that cost companies billions of dollars in losses each year.
No less damaging, Ashcroft said, is the specter that cyberspace is beyond the reach of law. "The idea you can get away with it here is an idea we must curtail," he declared. "There are no free passes in cyberspace."
Ashcroft's plans calls for the creation of Computer Hacking and Intellectual Property (CHIP) units staffed by 77 personnel, including 48 lawyers. The units -- which Ashcroft said will be modeled on an existing unit created in 1999 in San Jose, Calif., by FBI Director nominee Robert Mueller when Mueller served as U.S. attorney in San Francisco -- will work closely with FBI squads that specialize in computer crime, and will be added to U.S. attorney's offices in Los Angeles, San Diego, Atlanta, Boston, Brooklyn and Manhattan, Dallas, Seattle and Alexandria, Va. Mueller, whose nomination is expected to receive little opposition in Congress, flanked Ashcroft during a press conference on Friday at VeriSign headquarters in Mountain View, Calif.
The San Jose CHIP unit is now handling the prosecution of Dmitry Sklyarov, a 27-year-old computer programmer for Moscow-based ElcomSoft. Sklyarov was arrested by the FBI after a giving a presentation at hackers' confab in Las Vegas, for creating a program that circumvents Adobe Systems' e-book security.
"Free Sklyarov!" has become an online rallying cry for members of the Electronic Frontier Foundation and other civil libertarians who believe that the Digital Millennium Copyright Act tramples on individual rights. In an open letter to Ashcroft, EFF Executive Director Shari Steele called Sklyarov's arrest "shameful and opportunistic actions against an individual who was here simply to share his knowledge and expertise with American scientists." Ashcroft refused to comment on the pending case.
The San Jose CHIP unit, Ashcroft said, has proven its value in a number of cases, including that of a hacker now serving an 18-month sentence for violating the computer systems of the Department of Defense, NASA and other U.S. agencies. Another successful prosecution put eight members of a robbery ring behind bars for terms ranging from 2.5 to 13 years. Another led to guilty pleas from individuals who were selling copyrighted software over the Internet via a Web site called "software-inc.com," and led to what is believed to be the first-ever criminal forfeiture of a Web site in an intellectual-property case.
"When the site becomes the official property of the United States government, prosecutors intend to keep it up on the Internet," Ashcroft said. "Visitors will see a warning that the site has been seized by law enforcement and get the clear message that cybercrime carries real penalties for offenders."
Before the press conference, Ashcroft and Mueller met privately with executives from 15 tech companies in a gathering arranged by lobbying group TechNet. Ashcroft's nomination as attorney general, which was hotly contested by liberals, received wide support among high-tech interests.
"This is a step in the right direction," TechNet CEO Rick White said, noting that the borderless nature of the Internet makes it important that U.S. authorities take an aggressive approach to digital crime. "We'll be a leader," White added. "I don't think we want to be the world's policeman."
ClickAction CEO Gregory Slayton said strong enforcement "is exactly what we need," noting that his company fends off denial-of-service attacks and other intrusions on a daily basis. Slayton said he had taken his complaints to the FBI last year "but they didn't seem interested."
Law enforcement officials also were pleased with Ashcroft's initiative. Chris Woiwode, supervisory special agent of the FBI's high-tech squad in Silicon Valley, said the pioneering CHIP unit represented a big improvement from the past, when prosecutors juggled a wide variety of cases.
Sgt. Lloyd Cardone, a San Jose police officer assigned to an interagency task force on high-tech crime, said law enforcement had been "behind the curve" in policing computer crimes. "Now," he said, "we're catching up to digital crime."
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