Computer Crime Research Center


Tougher cybercrime legislation needs OK from Congress, president

Date: January 16, 2008
By: Art Coviello and Robert Holleyman

During the recent holiday season, e-commerce peaked as more than 1 billion Internet users around the world shopped online. All year around, the Internet is transforming our economy and creating unprecedented opportunities.

Unfortunately, criminals take advantage of these opportunities, too. Part of the Internet's success lies in its sheer reach, anonymity and speed - advantages that can be used for harmful purposes as well as benign ones. What's worse is that the majority of cybercriminals no longer fit the stereotype of isolated individuals on home computers. Today's cyberfraud is increasingly perpetrated by organized crime rings motivated by huge profits and equipped to execute very elaborate schemes. Networks of criminals include specialists in all kinds of specific tasks, such as designing attacks, providing technological infrastructure and collecting money. Like any for-profit business, cybercrime operations often have well-developed business strategies, systematically targeting the geographies and business sectors that represent the largest opportunities. According to Erez Liebermann, the Department of Justice's Assistant U.S. Attorney in the Computer Hacking and Intellectual Property Division, cybercrime is so profitable for organized crime that it now funds other illegal operations.

Numerous authorities have documented that the United States is the world's No. 1 target for cyberfraudsters, and the vast majority of all such attacks are aimed at ordinary users of PCs in the home. In that context, it's no wonder that consumer confidence in the Internet, which has become critical to our economy, is on the decline. In June 2007, the FBI's Internet Crime Complaint Center registered its millionth consumer complaint against suspected online fraud and cybercrime. And those complaints are likely to represent only a small fraction of the cybercrimes perpetrated against Americans each year.

For far too long, cybercriminals have taken advantage of legal blind spots and a resource-starved law enforcement community to undermine consumer confidence in the online medium. And this "trust deficit" is evident in the business community, too: The FBI also found that few organizations bother to report computer security incidents to law enforcement. Why? They believed the infractions were either not yet defined as illegal, or that there was little law enforcement could or would do.

As the Mercury News' series on cybercrime, "Ghosts in the Browser," reported late last year, current law has not kept up with the changing realities of these threats and their growing costs to businesses and consumers. Despite concerted efforts by authorities at all levels, budget constraints and gaps in existing law are hampering the prosecution of much of today's cybercrime. As a result, the criminals can act with virtual impunity, threatening online consumer confidence and security.

Bipartisan proposals in Congress would provide a more comprehensive approach to modern cyberthreats: closing loopholes in criminal statutes, stiffening penalties and sanctions to provide for more effective deterrence, and delivering needed resources to law enforcement officers to keep pace with the problem.

The Senate recently approved this kind of tough new cybercrime legislation. Now it is time for the House to follow suit. Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Pasadena, is working with leaders of the House Judiciary Committee to advance a bill similar to the Senate version. It is essential that Congress move swiftly to pass a final version of this legislation and send it to the president as soon as possible.

In a knowledge-based economy, our productivity and quality of life depend in no small measure on our ability to use and trust the Internet. While we cannot completely stamp out crime in the online world any more than we can in the physical world, we need to at least make sure that the criminals who perpetrate these crimes can be caught and forced to pay for them. As consumers and businesses, we are already paying a price.

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