STEVE INSKEEP, Host:
OK. Let's review some of the action in the cyber war over WikiLeaks.
DON GONYEA, Host:
First, the website released thousands of confidential U.S. documents.
INSKEEP: Then, companies working with WikiLeaks stopped cooperating with it.
GONYEA: And then, computer hackers started attacking the companies. It was called Operation Payback.
INSKEEP: The next move belonged to the companies and maybe the U.S. Justice Department, though prosecutors aren't sure what to do. We start our coverage with NPR's Carrie Johnson.
CARRIE JOHNSON: Mark Rasch started the Justice Department unit that's searching for the hackers who lashed out in support of WikiLeaks. But Rasch doesn't have great expectations for criminal indictments against the people who brought down the websites of MasterCard and PayPal. That's because many of them operate in a shadowy, online world too far away.
M: I mean, if you have a very successful or high-profile attack, or an attack that causes a tremendous amount of damage because of its timing, you'll at least get an investigation. Let's face it. Most computer crimes are not prosecuted because we rarely catch the people responsible.
JOHNSON: U.S. investigators are hunting for the leaders of the hacking operation, and tracing anonymous hackers who did a bad job of disguising their identities. But Rasch says prosecutors weigh a whole bunch of factors.
M: What we may be looking at is 15- and 16-year-old kids who do this sort of not as a prank, but as a protest. And do we really want to spend the time, the money, the energy and the resources to bring a bunch of these kids over from Belgium or Holland or the Netherlands?
M: But what kind of message does it send out there when no one's doing any kind of retaliation, and you get one - you know - Dutch kid, and you get one or two people out there? But there are hundreds of thousands of systems being compromised right now to propagate this attack.
JOHNSON: That's Charles Dodd. He consults with the U.S. government on cyber security, and he's worried that Operation Payback will give hackers and more dangerous people some bad ideas for the future.
M: I'm afraid it's going to probably set a precedent. It's going to be one of those events that happened, that do show the rest of the community out there - and the rest of the world - the power of cyber-attacks.
JOHNSON: Stewart Baker wrote a book on cyber threats, and he says congressional attention could help.
M: I do think that there are a variety of holes in our legal system that this has exposed. You know, we treat bootleg copies of Hollywood movies with far more protection than we give to classified secrets of the United States government.
JOHNSON: Rasch, the former computer crime prosecutor, says the government and industry have to take matters into their own hands.
M: Cybercrime occurs transnationally. It occurs everywhere at the same time. But we are divided into political borders. And so hackers can act at the speed of light, and prosecutors and lawyers act at the speed of law.
JOHNSON: Carrie Johnson, NPR News, Washington.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.