U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft is sending a very strong message to hackers, crackers, spies and other criminals who use computers - there are no free passes in cyberspace.
Ashcroft unveiled a 10-city rollout of a new prosecution task force Friday designed to crack down on a wide range of computer crimes.
The Computer Hacking and Intellectual Property (CHIP) units will be based in San Francisco, Los Angeles, San Diego, Atlanta, Boston, Dallas, Seattle, Alexandria, Virginia and two New York offices - Brooklyn and Manhattan.
"We want to send the message that cyber crime carries real penalties for offenders," says Ashcroft.
The ten teams of 77 people (48 prosecutors and staff) will be specially trained to focus on computer intrusions (or what the AG identifies as hacking), copyright and trademark violations, theft of trade secrets and economic espionage, theft and/or fraud involving computer and high tech components and other Internet-related crimes.
"There is a perception of lawlessness on the Internet and that if you are on the Web, you can get away with it," says Ashcroft. "That is an idea that we must curtail."
The new program is making a timely debut, what with the recent "Code Red" denial of service attacks on the Whitehouse.gov Web site and SirCam worms being spread around.
The National model is based on what San Francisco CHIPS officers have been doing for several years. The idea is to involve local law enforcement in the process to stop the crimes before they start.
Flanked by FBI Director Nominee Robert Mueller, who helped develop the program in San Francisco, and the CEOs of several Silicon Valley firms including Verisign (Nasdaq: VRSN), Autoweb, Technet, and ClickAction, Ashcroft met with the executives in Mountain View, Calif. saying his prosecutors need the tech community to also lend a hand.
"When a bank is robbed the bank calls the police," says Ashcroft. "But when valuable commercial information is stolen from some high tech companies, victims are often reluctant to refer the cases to law enforcement. They fear customer mistrust and competitive disadvantage.
Computer-related crime is surfacing quickly to the top as a concern of businesses doing business on the Web.
Two widespread examples include the 1999 "Melissa" virus, which caused some $80 million in damages or the 2000 "ILOVEYOU" virus, which the attorney general says did an estimated $10 billion in damages worldwide.
When asked about the jurisdiction of CHIP prosecutors in cases of overseas threats of computer-related crime, Ashcroft could only say that his office is eager to work with authorities around the world and that there are ongoing talks between the U.S. and France and the U.S. and Mexico.
"Computer crime has become more international," says Ashcroft. "Frankly some of the domestic crime becomes international. We feel that the FBI, with its would be best poised to help out in that area."