Stiffer Cyber Laws to Crack Down on Botnets, Spyware

Stiffer Cyber Laws to Crack Down on Botnets, Spyware
Stiffer Cyber Laws to Crack Down on Botnets, Spyware 

By Luke O'Brien

WASHINGTON -- Federal lawmakers confronting a plague of botnet 
infections, denial-of-service extortion schemes and spyware are going on 
the counter-offensive with two new bills that would make it easier for 
federal prosecutors to charge cybercriminals, while bringing computer 
intrusion under the ambit of the mob-busting RICO Act.

Together, the Cyber-Security Enhancement Act and the Internet Spyware 
(I-SPY) Prevention Act would represent one of the more significant 
updates to federal computer-crime law in the last two decades.

Around 30 percent of malicious internet activity took place or 
originated in the United States in the second half of last year, 
according to information from Symantec. China was second at 10 percent. 
Prominent among today's threats are bots -- a type of malicious software 
that secretly puts a vulnerable PC under the control of an attacker, who 
can direct thousands of computers at once. Organized cybercriminals 
routinely use networks of bots to launder spam, steal passwords for 
online banking and launch denial-of-service attacks like those that 
recently plagued the small European nation of Estonia after it angered 
Russian nationalists.

"You're looking at a new species of criminal conduct," says Roma Theus, 
a white-collar crime expert at the Defense Research Institute and a 
former federal prosecutor. "We have to look beyond where we are today 
and think about where we might be ten years from today."

The Cyber-Security Enhancement Act, introduced by Rep. Adam Schiff 
(D-California), would do just that, stiffening penalties and sentencing 
times for cybercriminals by classifying computer-fraud offenses as a 
predicate offense for the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt 
Organizations, or RICO, law. Authorities could also seize any ill-gotten 
gains a crook may have obtained through online rackets.

The measure also adjusts the damage threshold that qualifies a 
cybercrime receive FBI attention. Currently, a financial loss of $5,000 
spread out among victims makes an intrusion into a federal case; under 
the bill, damaging 10 or more computers in a year would automatically 
qualify, even with no financial harm.

This bill has cheered many advocates for tougher laws on cybercrime. "In 
our discussions with law enforcement, that $5,000 limit is a major 
sticking point in terms of not being able to go after these criminals," 
says Rob Tai, the manager of cybercrime prevention for the Business 
Software Alliance, which represents the commercial software industry and 
supports both bills.

The I-SPY Act, introduced by Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-California), amends the 
same federal computer crimes statute by setting a five-year sentence 
and/or fines for anyone caught using subversive software "in 
furtherance" of a federal criminal offense. Scam artists who distribute 
software coded with keystroke loggers or other covert functions, and who 
use it to steal Social Security numbers, credit card numbers, passwords 
or any personal identification information could face new charges. So 
could hoods using spyware to "impair" a computer's security system while 
trying to defraud another person, although the prison time for that 
offense drops to two years.

The bill is a nice step forward but only part of a much-needed 
collection of tools to combat spyware violations, according to David 
Sohn, senior policy counsel at the Center for Democracy and Technology. 
"It's adding an additional enforcement arrow to the quiver," Sohn said.

Both measures modify the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act, the federal 
anti-hacking bill enacted in 1986. Originally intended to protect only 
federal government computers and financial institutions, the CFAA has 
been amended several times since then, most recently in 2001, when the 
Patriot Act raised the maximum penalties, among other tweaks.

Not everyone thinks the latest crop of bills is the correct response to 
shifting cyberthreats. "I'm not sure it's completely necessary," says 
Andy Serwin, a noted cyberspace lawyer and the author of a book on 
information security and privacy laws. "How much burden do you put on 

The Federal Trade Commission already enforces cyberfraud, and state and 
federal laws cover more than enough ground to allow for prosecution, 
Serwin argues. Increased legislation might wind up criminalizing 
legitimate software, such as Microsoft's updater, which automatically 
installs programs on computers and might technically be spyware under 
the new legislation, he says.

Besides, Serwin adds, "The guy who's going to do the really malicious 
stuff is going to do it anyway. And he may do it offshore, so there's no 
way to get at him."

Theus disagrees. He says that the government could extradite wrongdoers, 
or even seize them, ala Manuel Noriega. "If someone is under the 
misapprehension that they can be outside the U.S. and commit a crime 
that has effects inside the U.S. (and avoid sanctions), that person is 
going to be terribly surprised."

So far such extraditions are virtually unheard of. In the U.K., Gary 
McKinnon, a 41-year-old man accused of penetrating over 90 unclassified 
U.S. military computers in 2001 and 2002, has delayed extradition for 
years, even while admitting to the hacking spree. In April he lost a 
court challenge to an extradition order, and is now on a final appeal to 
the U.K. Parliament's Law Lords.

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