Among the last issues to come before the U.S. Senate before lawmakers began their August recess were cybercrime and cybersecurity. Senators ratified an international treaty aimed at cracking down on crimes that are facilitated by the Internet, and they assessed how vulnerable U.S. government computer networks are to potential attack.
The Senate ratified the Council of Europe's Convention on Cybercrime, which calls on signatories to share electronic information to boost efforts to combat crimes facilitated by the Internet.
In a written statement, Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist noted that terrorists use computers to plan and carry out bombings and murder, and child predators use computers to commit a variety of crimes against children from kidnapping and murder to sex trafficking and child pornography. He said the treaty will strengthen the ability of law enforcement and the intelligence community to prevent acts of terrorism and protect children around the world from predators.
U.S. Attorney General Alberto Gonzales said the treaty is in full accord with all U.S. constitutional protections, such as free speech and other civil liberties, and will require no change to U.S. laws.
The accord has been signed by 38 European nations, as well as the United States, Canada, Japan and South Africa.
In a related move, lawmakers are assessing the vulnerability of U.S. government computer networks.
Tom Noonan, president of Internet Security Systems, which advises governments and private companies worldwide about protecting computer networks, told a Senate panel that U.S. government efforts are woefully inadequate:
"We, as a nation, are not doing nearly enough to preempt the types of attacks that could debilitate our critical networked infrastructure," he said.
Senator Tom Coburn, an Oklahoma Republican, echoed the concern.
"What would happen to this economy if you had a four-week disruption, interruption of the Internet?" he asked. "We would be on our back, and everybody knows that. And yet the urgency to make sure that that cannot happen or if it did happen, recover quickly, I do not see anywhere except the private sector."
A new report by the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO), the congressional watchdog agency, criticizes the Department of Homeland Security for failing to prepare for a large-scale disruption of government networks.
Keith Rhodes is the GAO's chief technologist.
"DHS has developed high-level plans for infrastructure protection and a national disaster response, but components of these plans that are to address internet recovery are incomplete and inadequate," he said.
The Department of Homeland Security's Undersecretary of Preparedness, George Foresman, acknowledges more needs to be done, but says the situation is not as serious as the GAO's Rhodes suggests.
"I think his assessment in terms of progress is much bleaker than what is the actual progress to date," he noted.
Tom Noonan of Internet Security Systems suggests an assistant secretary of Homeland Security for Cyber Security be appointed to coordinate efforts with the private sector as a first step toward protecting the government's online infrastructure.