The Internet is providing tremendous opportunities for hackers, and law enforcement officials are worried the problem will explode before they can get tougher sentencing guidelines applied to computer crimes.
"This is a long term problem that will not go away easily," said Scott Charney, the former top computer cop at the Justice Department, who now heads PricewaterhouseCoopers' information security division.
Describing a rule he dubbed "Charney's Law," he said, "There is always a percentage of the population that is up to no good. Today, computers are in 50 percent of America's homes. Tomorrow it will be something like 98 percent."
The increase of computer literacy, coupled with the increasing proliferation of hacker tools, is going to make life tougher for those defending against crackers-or malicious hackers-and for prosecutors of traditional crimes like fraud, child pornography and counterfeiting.
Speaking at the National Summit on Cyber Crime, a conference sponsored by the National Institute for Government Innovation, Charney cited the difficulty of prosecuting computer-based counterfeiters as an example of outdated laws.
Sentencing is determined by the amount of contraband currency found on premises, but new technology permits criminals to use high-quality computers and laser printers to print a limited amount of money at a time and thwart significant jail time.
Computers have contributed to skyrocketing losses per incident of fraud, said Karl Seger, president of Associated Corporate Consultants, a Tennessee firm that helps businesses combat computer crime.
Incidents of fraud average $500,000 when committed with a computer versus $20,000 manually, he said.
But that doesn't necessarily mean that hackers are the worst of the problem, according to Seger. While the average cost of a hacker attack was $56,000, the average cost of a malicious act by an insider was $2.7 million, he said, citing a study by the FBI.