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Federal unit to fight hacking

The DOJ wants to set up a government center to clamp down on hackers, crackers, and other computer criminals.

The Justice Department wants to set up a government center to clamp down on hackers, crackers, and others who use bits and bytes rather than picks and drills to perpetrate their crimes.

U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno unveiled plans to form a unit, called the National Infrastructure Protection Center, in a half-hour speech today at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in the San Francisco Bay Area.

Reno told a room packed with scientists and reporters that with the exponential growth and development in technology, computer systems and the national information infrastructure are more vulnerable than ever.

Law enforcers, she said, "are used to robbers and guns. There are now new criminals out there that don't have guns. They have computers and many have other weapons of mass destruction." Reno did not specify what those weapons might be.

The attorney general emphasized that the center would focus on everything from attacks by individuals on specific computers to terrorists both domestically and internationally who aim to bring down entire systems, such as the nation's power or telephone grids.

The center, to be run primarily by the FBI, will work in concert with federal, state, and local law enforcement agencies, Reno added. But just as importantly, it will aim to pull in members of private industry, something she noted will take reassurances of trust and privacy.

The lab also will work to develop international cooperation, an element clearly necessary now that communications easily cross borders.

Developing technology "brings us a new world of incredible opportunity and of daunting challenges," Reno said. "The government, including the Department of Justice, is facing these problems head on but we know full well we cannot do it alone.

"It must be based on the idea that infrastructure protection requires we work together like never before."

The center will seek to act as a national clearinghouse for computer crime, and perhaps be directly linked to various Computer Emergency Response Teams throughout the country to monitor and assess potential threats. It also will provide training for local law enforcement officials, according to Reno.

She stressed that stepped-up enforcement will not violate anyone's individual rights: "We must not and cannot sacrifice any Constitutional protections."

While the unit was planned before news broke this week about an apparent break-in to Pentagon computers, the fact that it's being announced now is probably not coincidental.

The Pentagon does not keep security information linked to the public network, officials say. But the Defense Department, which usually downplays government break-ins, called this week's action the "most organized, systematic attack ever."

The Pentagon incident "is a perfect example as to why this is such an important issue at this building," a Justice Department official said. "The attorney general recognized that that's the new frontier of crime, and if we don't set up a structure for it, we're never going to be able to deal with it."

Reno will ask Congress for $64 million in increased funding to fight computer crime and attacks on the nation's infrastructure. Regardless of whether the center gets all the requested funding, it will be implemented, noted a DOJ official.

The center will be an outgrowth of the FBI's Computer Investigations and Infrastructure Threat Assessment Center, which was developed after a report was issued by President Clinton's Commission on Critical Infrastructure Protection report.

The center will not only focus on government break-ins but also those in the private sector and will cover any crimes perpetrated over the wires, including those involving telephones. While hacking and cracking is rampant, many companies fail to report break-ins because of the negative publicity associated with it.

"Crackers"--the term many use to refer to those who break into computers--have been breaking and entering systems for years, but they rarely get the kind of attention given to this week's case.

Still, cases do occasionally draw national and international publicity, such as in the case of infamous hacker Kevin Mitnick. There have been some reports of a raid and investigation focusing on a California teenager.

In related news, the California homes of two juveniles were raided Wednesday as part of a federal investigation into the Pentagon hacker attack, according to the Associated Press. The FBI declined to comment.

Reno did not mention the Pentagon case in her speech, but referred to teenage hackers, who sometimes make it difficult to distinguish between real threats to national security and "the young juvenile out to test his skills against the latest firewall."