Justice Department to Expand Spyware Enforcement

Rhett Pardon
WASHINGTON — The Justice Department is ramping up its efforts to control spyware and other Internet fraud by adding two more Computer Hacking and Intellectual Property (CHIP) units at U.S. Attorney’s offices in Sacramento and Orlando.

"The [Justice] Department is prepared to build the strongest, most aggressive legal assault against intellectual property crime in our nation’s history,” Attorney General John Ashcroft said in a release.

While government officials plan more prosecutions, a study announced Monday found that surfers are not nearly as safe online as they believe, according to a nationwide inspection by a consortium of companies, including America Online, Cisco Systems, Microsoft, eBay and Dell, as well as the Homeland Security Department and the Federal Trade Commission.

In the study, researchers found most consumers have no firewall protection, outdated antivirus software and dozens of spyware programs secretly running on their computers.

One Internet user had more than 1,000 spyware programs running on his sluggish computer when researchers examined it.

The study found that 77 percent of 326 adults in 12 states assured researchers in a telephone poll they were safe from online threats. Nearly as many people felt confident they were already protected specifically from viruses and hackers.

But when experts visited those same homes to examine computers, they found two-thirds of adults using antivirus software that was not updated in at least seven days.

Two-thirds of the computer users also were not using any type of protective firewall program, and spyware was found on the computers of 80 percent of those in the study.

Wendy Avino, a Lansdowne, Va., surfer who was surveyed, complained she was misled believing her commercial antivirus and firewall programs would protect her from all varieties of online threats.

"We don't go in funny chat rooms, I don't open funny mail," Avino said. "If it says 'hot girls,' I delete it. We do everything in the right way, so how does stuff get in there?"

Researchers found 14 spyware programs on her borrowed laptop and noticed that her $50 antivirus software was not properly configured to scan her computer at least monthly for possible infections.

The Justice Department’s announcement brings the number of CHIP units nationwide to 15.

The CHIP divisions focus on prosecuting copyright and trademark violations, theft of trade secrets, computer intrusions, theft of computer and high-tech components, and Internet fraud.

CHIP units were opened in 2001 in areas where intellectual property offenses and computer crime were the most prevalent, including Los Angeles, New York, Boston, Chicago, Miami and Seattle.

The government is also looking into opening CHIP units in Washington, Pittsburgh and Nashville, Tenn.

There are currently 60 prosecutors assigned to the 13 existing CHIP units, and the Justice Department has dedicated more than 250 federal prosecutors around the country to prosecuting computer crime and intellectual property theft.

The Justice Department also said it is expanding the Computer Crime and Intellectual Property Section of the department’s criminal division, which was recently involved in Operation Fastlink, an international effort to combat online theft.

The CHIP division was recently involved in Operation Digital Gridlock, which targeted IP theft over peer-to-peer networks and resulted in the seizure of more than 40 terabytes of material.