MOUNTAIN VIEW, Calif. — Calling computer security one of the nation's top problems, Attorney General John Ashcroft said Friday that the government is forming nine special units to prosecute hacking and copyright violations.
Ashcroft said the new specialists will bring to 48 the number of prosecutors working on cybercrime in U.S. attorneys' offices.
"There are many people of poor and evil motivations who are seeking to disrupt business and government and exploit any vulnerabilities in the digital universe," Ashcroft said after meeting with Silicon Valley executives and venture capitalists.
When computer crimes go unpunished, he said, "It impairs the ability of the United States of America to remain in its position of priority in leading the world in the digital age."
The new prosecutors will work in cities with relatively high levels of cybercrime: Los Angeles, San Diego, Atlanta, Boston, Dallas, Seattle, New York, Brooklyn, N.Y., and Alexandria, Va. The units will be modeled on the nation's first Computer Hacking and Intellectual Property squad, which began working out of the U.S. Attorney's Office in San Francisco several years ago.
That unit was created by U.S. Attorney Robert Mueller, whom President Bush has nominated for FBI director. Mueller attended Friday's news conference at the headquarters of VeriSign Inc., but did not comment.
Ashcroft cited a study by PriceWaterhouseCoopers LLC that said businesses spent $300 billion fighting hackers and computer viruses last year.
He said the government must be careful to help secure the Internet without hindering its development.
"There is perhaps nothing quite as distressing as the unintended consequences of well-intentioned government," Ashcroft said.
While cybercrime is an expensive problem for the private sector, companies are often reluctant to report computer attacks to law enforcement authorities out of fear of negative publicity and concern that prosecutors don't have the technical savvy to solve the cases.
Prosecutors in the nine units will try to forge relationships within the technology community, provide training for state and local prosecutors and encourage companies to come forward when they are hit by hackers, Justice Department officials said.
Ashcroft would not comment on the case of Dmitry Sklyarov, a 26-year-old Russian arrested this week in Las Vegas and charged with writing a program that unlocked encrypted software designed by Adobe Systems Inc. to protect electronic books.
The FBI contends that is a violation of the 1998 Digital Millennium Copyright Act. Critics of the case say Sklyarov works for a legitimate company in Moscow that merely has a business dispute with Adobe.
"Taxpayer dollars are basically being used to do Adobe's dirty work," said Richard Smith, chief technology officer for the Privacy Foundation at the University of Denver. "Frankly, I think they should be spending their time fixing the security problems he pointed out."
Web site: www.usdoj.gov