Pro-WikiLeaks hackers may be hard for US to pursue

NEW YORK (Reuters Legal) – Legal hurdles could make it tough for US prosecutors to go after pro-WikiLeaks hackers who waged cyber attacks last week on Visa, MasterCard, PayPal and other companies.

Attorney General Eric Holder said last week he was “looking into” it but there are enormous challenges finding, moving, investigating and finally convicting those the United States might accuse.

Typically the federal government prosecutes hacking under the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act, which prohibits the “transmission of a program, information, code, or command” that “intentionally causes damage without authorization, to a protected computer.” It‘s a broad, powerful statute that applies even to computer crime committed abroad, and can carry prison sentences and heavy fines. But to use it, authorities will first have to locate the elusive hackers and bring them to the United States.

In this case, a group of Internet activists working under the name Operation Payback claimed responsibility for the attacks, which briefly shut down the websites of several companies that had cut off services to WikiLeaks after the whistleblower organization last month made public a massive trove of secret U.S. diplomatic cables. Dutch police arrested two Dutch teenagers last week, and other hackers around the globe are believed to be involved. If the US seeks to prosecute these or any other hackers who may be apprehended overseas, it will have to rely on foreign counterparts to extradite them to the United States. Extraditions often get caught up in politics.

Over the last decade, international cooperation in computer crimes has increased; since 2004, dozens of countries have ratified the Council of Europe’s Convention on Cybercrime, which was designed to harmonize computer crime policy and foster international cooperation.

Still, a handful of countries, including Russia, have not ratified the treaty. Prosecuting hackers in those countries could prove difficult. The Wall Street Journal reported that the Federal Bureau of Investigation worked with Dutch authorities on the arrests; Justice Department spokeswoman Laura Sweeney declined to comment on the arrests in the Netherlands or the extent to which the two countries may be cooperating.

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