FBI: Cybercrime Still a Priority
In the aftermath of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, government officials say they will continue to pursue policies designed to protect against cyberattacks. At the FBI, Director Robert Mueller is expected to press forward with the anti-cybercrime plans he identified as a priority at his confirmation hearing in July.
“Just because we’re working hard on the terrorism investigation doesn’t mean we’ll let our other top priorities be neglected,” Spokeswoman Debbie Weierman said after the attacks.
But Mueller has his work cut out for him. The FBI has suffered high-profile embarrassments this year. A recent report by the General Accounting Office blamed inefficiency and understaffing at the FBI- staffed National Infrastructure Protection Center for poor performance in predicting and issuing reports on cyberattacks. This past spring, after officials uncovered thousands of pages of undisclosed documents from the Oklahoma City bombing case, they admitted that the FBI’s computer systems were hopelessly outdated.
Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, which oversees the FBI, notes that the bureau’s PCs have not been updated for more than six years, and thousands are so old they can’t run Windows-based software. Slow network connections and ancient databases that can’t store photographs also hobble the agency, he says.
That antique equipment is a big problem, according to Mueller. “There is a need to rebuild infrastructure, to upgrade information systems and to upgrade procedures to integrate modern technology” into agency operations, he said at the July hearing. “Every FBI manager [and] every agent needs to be computer literate.”
Mueller, a former U.S. attorney for Northern California, plans to throw FBI support behind cybercrime investigation units to foster cooperation between prosecutors and FBI agents. But for Mueller to succeed in his new role, he must recognize there’s only so much the government can do, says Jim Dempsey, deputy director at The Center for Democracy & Technology, a nonpartisan policy organization. “The FBI can be very, very good at investigating crimes after they’ve been committed,” Dempsey says. “They are never going to be trusted as a repository of cyberthreat information or the source of warnings and alerts.” Instead, he thinks the private sector must be the first line of cyberdefense by making security a priority in systems design.
Should the Bush administration do more to boost private sector use of IT? That’s one question quietly raging in Washington policy circles. Prescriptions predictably vary according to ideology.
The government should actively promote IT to boost productivity, according to Robert Atkinson, vice president and director of the Technology & New Economy Project at the Progressive Policy Institute, a centrist Democratic think tank. He doesn’t suggest specific policies but says the feds should encourage increased adoption of IT in industries such as real estate, education and health care, where technologies like smart cards and wireless devices could increase efficiency and create usage models for other sectors. (So far, no legislation has been introduced to carry out this idea.)
Meanwhile, at The Progress and Freedom Foundation, a conservative technology policy think tank, Senior Fellow Alan Charles Raul says the government is already doing enough to promote e-commerce by enacting legislation such as last year’s bill legalizing electronic records and signatures. “They need to promote e-commerce by removing barriers to online activities, not imposing onerous regulations,” he says.
To date, Congress has maintained a hands-off approach toward regulation. It is unclear whether that will change with the Senate under Democratic control. By the time you read this, lawmakers may already have decided to extend a moratorium on Internet access taxes that expires later this month. But at press time, they were still waffling over whether they should come up with a scheme that would help states collect taxes from online purchases.