John Frazzini, a special agent with the Electronic Crimes Branch of the Secret Service, told attendees of the NETSEC 2002 conference here that an attack on the nation's electronic payment systems could damage faith in the U.S. economy.
He said companies must band together in a national neighborhood watch to protect the country's networks from terrorists who hope to hobble them. Frazzini also attacked hackers, accusing them of threatening the nation's faith in its networks.
"If you're a U.S. citizen and you're breaking into computer networks, not only are you criminal but I think you're unpatriotic," he said.
"We should be working together to address this problem," Frazzini added. "Law enforcement alone cannot solve this problem."
Frazzini noted that the private sector controls most of the nation's IT resources, making its cooperation essential in stopping Net criminals.
U.S. officials have stepped up efforts to fight cybercrime in recent months, including moving the Secret Service and organizations designed to protect national infrastructure under the auspices of a new Homeland Security Agency.
In addition, the terrorist attacks accelerated the development of Electronic Crime Task Forces in major cities across the country. The FBI also announced to assign more agents to Internet-based activities during its restructuring.
Tech companies have long had a strained relationship with law enforcement, mainly because they're sometimes placed in the awkward position of turning over private customer information to the police. For example, law enforcement began asking Internet service providers for a vastly greater amount of data about terrorist suspects following Sept. 11, forcing the companies to divert resources from their core businesses to handle the request load.
Corporate America also has been notoriously lax in contacting law enforcement following computer break-ins, partly because of a fear that a publicity nightmare will adversely affect their bottom line. Robert Rodriguez, the special agent in charge of San Francisco's field office who accompanied Frazzini, said a 1997 survey showed that 80 percent of companies failed to call the police following a cyberattack, although more are cooperating these days.
"The government cannot do it alone anymore," Rodriguez said. "The importance of partnership cannot be understated."
Some in the NETSEC audience wanted to know why they should work with law enforcement if it would only lead to bad publicity. But the agents assured attendees that the Secret Service is charged with keeping all types of information under wraps, including the private conversations of the U.S. president.
Others quibbled with the agent's comparison of a computer break-in or virus with the tragedy of Sept. 11. Frazzini acknowledged that "cyberterrorism is more economic- than violence-based." But he warned that a cyber break-in still could have grave consequences for U.S. citizens, either by ruining the economy or allowing hackers access to sensitive information that could threaten national security.
Frazzini played the patriotism card by including in his slide presentation a quote attributed to Osama bin Laden in December, roughly translated as: "It is very important to concentrate on hitting the U.S. economy through all possible means...look for key pillars of the U.S. economy. The key pillars of the enemy should be struck."
Frazzini then told the audience, "When you look at this slide, it should piss you off."