Computer crime, along with the industry itself, is growing exponentially - and law enforcement is having a tough time keeping up.
At an Internet summit with President Clinton and other administration officials this week, corporate executives complained that they have taken detailed cases to law enforcement, only to find they were either ignored or response was slow.
The inattention is due to manpower shortages, inadequate forensic equipment, and judges who sometimes view hackers as merely pesky, electronic joyriders, says Harris Miller, president of the Information Technology Association of America.
It appears that Washington is now getting the message, driven home by last week's unprecedented hacking of some of the world's largest Web sites.
"It's hard to keep up. We need to have training and we need to have tools. The field is constantly changing, and we need to adapt," says Jessica Herrera, a trial attorney in the computer-crime section of the Justice Department.
Yesterday, Attorney General Janet Reno called for a "five-year plan" to focus on cybercrime - similar to a plan to focus on terrorism - when she and FBI director Louis Freeh testified on the subject before the Senate Appropriations Committee.
With some analysts projecting e-commerce as a $1.5 trillion business by 2003, the White House is trying to raise spending on computer security.
This week, it announced plans to seek a $9 million, supplemental increase in this year's federal budget for fighting cybercrime. Its $2.3 billion budget request for 2001 represents a 16 percent increase over this year.
The House Judiciary Committee, concerned that cybercrime laws are neither broad enough nor penalties tough enough, will hold a hearing March 1 to look at both - and is even talking about giving the administration more resources than it has requested.
"We may go back and ask for more," says a committee aide.
While the worldwide hacker population numbered about 35,000 two years ago, it's jumped to 100,000 today, according to the Information Security Advisory Group. Many hackers are teens intrigued by the challenge of breaking into computer systems without getting caught. The perpetrators of last week's attacks are still unknown, although the FBI has reportedly narrowed its search to a handful of suspects.
Whether they cause immediate monetary damage or not, they undermine the credibility of an industry that now accounts for one-third of the economic growth in the US, and they need to be taken seriously, all sides agree.
Yet it's not as if law enforcement has been standing still. The computer-crime section at the Justice Department has grown from two attorneys in 1991 to 20 today, and each US attorney's office around the country now has a computer-crime specialist.
Last year, US attorneys filed 85 computer cases - a 29 percent increase over the year before. Serious hackers are spending four to five years in prison and can't use any Internet-related equipment for years afterwards.
Officials are "doing a very good job with what they have, but it's difficult to keep pace," says Margaret Vroman, a professor at Detroit College of Law.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society