Feds Target Scofflaws And Spammers

Attorney general gets serious about file sharing; private funding helps investigations
As part of its recent crackdown on cybercrime, the Justice Department last week detailed major enforcement actions against copyright scofflaws and spammers.

Cybercriminals put jobs at risk and hurt the U.S. economy, Attorney General Ashcroft says.

Cybercriminals put jobs at risk and hurt the U.S. economy, Attorney General Ashcroft says.

Photo by Dennis Brack/Bloomberg News/Landov
On Wednesday, Justice officials said federal agents had served six warrants in New York, Texas, and Wisconsin against five residences and one Internet service provider as part of its investigation of illegal file trading over peer-to-peer networks. "Today's actions send an important message to those who steal over the Internet," Attorney General John Ashcroft said in a statement. "When online thieves illegally distribute copyrighted programs and products, they put the livelihoods of millions of hardworking Americans at risk and damage our economy." That same day, the Recording Industry Association of America filed lawsuits against 744 users of online file-sharing networks, bringing the total number of cases it has filed since September to about 4,700.

The group's lawyers may be busy for a while: A recent survey by research firm Pollara estimated that 26% of music consumers had used Kazaa's file-sharing network this past spring, up from 8% in fall 2001. However, it's worth noting that according to music-industry tracking service Nielsen SoundScan, there were 54 million legal downloads in the first half of this year, up from 19 million in the last half of 2003.

The next day, Justice Department officials revealed the conclusion of "Operation Web Snare," which began June 1 and culminated in 103 arrests and 53 convictions for cybercrimes that affected some 150,000 victims who lost more than $215 million. These investigations cover a variety of computer-related crimes, including identity theft, fraud, counterfeit software, computer intrusions, and other intellectual-property crimes.

Some of the credit for the government's cybercrime actions belongs to the business community, which contributed funds for the investigations. For instance, since June, the Direct Marketing Association has been backing--to the tune of $500,000--Operation Slam Spam, which it described in a release as "a public/private alliance between the FBI and the DMA to combat spam." Spammers, says Jerry Cerasale, senior VP of government affairs at the DMA, are undermining trust in E-mail as a commercial medium.

While the practice of offering up private funding in support of criminal cases isn't common, Kevin Lyles, a partner in law firm Jones Day, says it's not unheard of. "The law-enforcement authorities just don't have the resources to make a dent in the spam problem in the United States," Lyles says. Bradford Brown, chairman of the National Center for Technology & Law at George Mason University School of Law, observes that industry groups have a history of working with the government. "The industry asked the Justice Department to do something, and it's doing it," he says. In July, Microsoft said it had assigned a full-time analyst and provided more than $46,000 in software to the National Cyber-Forensics and Training Alliance, a cyberforensics organization established by the FBI, the National White Collar Crime Center, Carnegie Mellon University, and West Virginia University.

For those in the E-mail technology industry, the spam prosecutions are welcome, but few believe they'll have much impact. David Strickler, CEO of E-mail protection company MailWise, likens spamming to drug dealing, in that both activities have proven profitable. "Quite frankly, a full-time spammer can pull down a six-figure income," he says. "I don't think there's a solution except to take the money away."