Clinton Cybercrime Effort Spinning its Wheels

One has to commend the Clinton administration for its earnest efforts to combat cybercrime and investigate the spate of denial-of-service (DoS) hacker attacks that have plagued e-commerce and other Internet sites over the past several weeks.

However, the much-anticipated report from a White House-appointed interagency working group manages nothing more than to rehash what most industry observers already know: The threat of hacker attacks is serious and far-reaching, and the U.S. government’s current ability to address them is inadequate.

The report, “The Electronic Frontier: The Challenge Of Unlawful Conduct Involving The Use Of The Internet,” offers three recommendations based on its exploration of cybercrime.

Same Old, Same Old

First, in keeping with the oft-stated positions of both the White House and consumer privacy advocates, the group suggests that any government moves to thwart illegal Internet activity or prosecute perpetrators be especially mindful of consumer privacy.

Such activities should ensure “that online conduct is treated in a manner consistent with the way offline conduct is treated, in a technology-neutral manner, and in a manner that takes account of other important societal interests, such as privacy and protection of civil liberties,” the group states in its report.

A second recommendation sounds as if it were drafted by the same members of the Justice and Commerce Departments who complained in Congressional hearings last year that they are doing everything they can to police the Web with the limited resources that Congress keeps giving them.

The group urges the federal government to recognize the Internet’s law enforcement challenges as “significant, particularly in the areas of resources, training, and the need for new investigative tools and capabilities, coordination with and among federal, state, and local law enforcement agencies, and coordination with and among our international counterparts.”

The third recommendation, perhaps written with help from the business community, argues that the federal government should provide “continued support for private sector leadership and the development of methods — such as ‘cyberethics’ curricula, appropriate technological tools, and media and other outreach efforts — that educate and empower Internet users to prevent and minimize the risks of unlawful activity.”

In other words, the Internet community, apparently with the blessing of the Justice and Commerce Departments, would still rather try to police itself than have the federal government regulate it.

On this third point, the working group acknowledges that such education efforts are already underway, through cooperative efforts between the government and the private sector.

Ready for Action?

These unremarkable revelations do not mean that the group is not taking its job seriously. According to the working group, the Clinton administration is still enthusiastic about the way the Internet has started to change American society, from how it communicates to how it shops and does business.

“As the Internet’s potential to provide unparalleled benefits to society continues to expand, however, its potential to serve as a powerful new medium for those who wish to commit unlawful acts has also grown,” the report says.

In one sense, the report provides some encouraging news — by finding that existing federal laws governing such problems as credit card fraud, identity theft, securities fraud, gambling, and unfair and deceptive trade acts or practices do not distinguish between different technologies that may be involved. Therefore, enforcement of those laws with regard to Internet crimes can be conducted without the need to pass new laws, which can be a time-consuming process.

“To the extent these existing laws adequately address unlawful conduct in the offline world, they should, for the most part, adequately cover unlawful conduct on the Internet,” the working group says.

“There may be a few instances, however, where relevant federal laws need to be amended to better reflect the realities of new technologies, such as the Internet,” the report continues. In particular, the working group suggests that some of the federal laws governing procedure in investigation and evidence gathering may have to be updated to reflect the different nature of the Internet.

Similarly, both federal regulations and diplomatic efforts may have to be adjusted to enable law enforcement officials to hunt down cyber-criminals that perpetrate hacker attacks or bomb threats through computers in multiple countries.

What’s Next?

Noting that it stuck to its mandate to analyze federal cybercrime law enforcement capabilities, the working group suggests that the next step should be to expand that analysis to state and, if appropriate, local laws that address crimes that may be committed on the Internet.

“Because coordination and cooperation among federal, state, and local law enforcement agencies are key to our efforts to prevent, deter, investigate, and prosecute such unlawful conduct, such an analysis would provide states and others with a blueprint for translating the conclusions in this report into a more comprehensive approach to meeting the substantial challenges presented,” the group states.

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