Who reigns in 'Wild West' Web?

'Government may not have the biggest guns' when it comes to maintaining law and order

The Internet is the new Wild West, and what's needed to maintain law and order may be a "victim-centered vigilantism," a George Mason University law professor said March 16 during a panel discussion on cybercrime.

"Government may not have the biggest guns on the Internet," said Michael O'Neill, one of three panelists discussing privacy and law enforcement in cyberspace at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C.

But according to a Justice Department official on the same panel, deputizing companies, including Internet service providers, to crack down on hackers might invite the electronic equivalent to a gunfight at the OK Corral.

Giving companies authority to launch electronic attacks on hackers would probably cause far more problems that it would remedy, said Orin Kerr of Justice's computer crime section.

"There's no way to keep conduct from escalating online," Kerr said.

Kerr and O'Neill, along with Marc Rotenberg of the Electronic Privacy Information Center, were on the panel to discuss "Law enforcement in cyberspace: Who has the upper hand—the hackers or the cops?"

But discussion quickly moved in another direction—to privacy and whether government should be responsible for monitoring, tracking down and responding to cybercrimes.

Kerr said people should "be especially worried about how hard it is for government to catch people who commit crimes online." Between public encryption technology, which officials cannot crack, and the ability of criminals to commit electronic crimes by working through remote computers, the balance of technology between law enforcement and criminals has tipped in favor of criminals, he said.

The Justice Department was a major advocate in the early "90s of requiring all encryption technologies in the United States to have a "key" that law enforcement could use if necessary. The effort failed.

O'Neill and Rotenberg acknowledged the need for law enforcement to have the equipment needed to fight cybercrime, but said Justice's efforts have gone too far.

Rotenberg said the FBI's Carnivore e-mail bugging system turned out to be far more invasive than the bureau initially testified. There also is a trend in law enforcement to create databases of information on people, he said, noting that at this year's Super Bowl, everyone entering the Tampa, Fla., stadium was filmed using a system that compared their faces with images of criminals or criminal suspects, he said.

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