updated 9/15/2004 8:50:44 PM ET 2004-09-16T00:50:44

An international conference opened Wednesday amid warnings that companies, governments and individuals are increasingly vulnerable to Internet attacks by terrorists, hackers and others that rob them of privacy, money, and secrets.

The aim of the three-day Council of Europe meeting in Strasbourg, France, is to get governments worldwide to accelerate ratification of the council's 2001 Cybercrime Convention, the first international treaty to combat Internet crimes.

"It is urgent to get this important treaty ratified by as many nations as possible. The European Cybercrime Convention is not just a treaty for the European continent: it is one for all nations of this planet," Guy De Vel, the Council of Europe's legal affairs chief, said at the opening of the conference.

The event brings together law enforcement officials and Internet users, including private companies. It underscores that while the Internet's unregulated nature is widely seen as a problem in law enforcement terms, governments are slow to jointly combat Internet crime.

The 2001 cybercrime convention has been signed by 30 countries, including Canada, Japan, South Africa and the United States, that are not members of the 45-nation Council of Europe.

The treaty took effect in July, but only in eight nations -- Albania, Croatia, Estonia, Hungary, Lithuania, Romania, Slovenia and Macedonia -- that have ratified it.

Ulrich Sieber, head of the Max Planck Institute for Foreign and International Criminal Law in Freiburg, Germany, told the conference law enforcement must be constantly adapted to deal with Internet criminals.

"Computer systems are indispensable in the context of financial transactions, production processes, business secrets, essential infrastructures, the military system, etc.," he said.

Sieber said while fraud and copyright infringements account for most Internet crimes, "my main concern would be a terrorist attack on (computer) systems that control ... power plants or financial institutions."

He said there is an impossibility in enforcing national laws on crimes committed on the Internet.

"The Internet is fast, whereas criminal law systems are slow and formal. The Internet offers anonymity, whereas criminal law systems require identification of perpetrators ... The Internet is global, whereas criminal law systems are generally limited to a specific territory. Effective prosecution with national remedies is all but impossible in a global space."

A main conference report on the scope of Internet crime states, among other things:

  • There were 600 million Internet users in 2002 worldwide, double the 1999 number.
  • In Germany, Internet crimes account for 1.3 percent of all recorded crimes, "but for 57 percent -- or $8.3 billion -- of the material damage caused by crime."
  • A fast-rising crime worldwide is "phishing," e-mails that appear to be from banks and other financial institutions asking consumers for their credit card details.
  • A 2004 survey of 494 U.S. corporations found 20 percent had been subject to "attempts of computer sabotage and extortion, among others through denial of service attacks."
  • Web sites promoting racism, hatred and violence have risen by 300 percent since 200. Most are hosted in the Unite States, but many may originate in Europe.
  • Child pornography on the Internet is an industry worth approximately $20 billion this year. "Surveys in 2003 suggest that child pornography accounts for 24 percent of image searches in peer-to-peer applications."
  • Organized crime is well established in cyberspace, using the Internet for human trafficking and commit economic crimes. In March, German police confiscated 19 Internet servers, 200 computers, 40,000 compact discs and 38 terabytes of private videos and software that was for sale through the Internet. In April, searches across Europe netted illegal software, CDs and DVDs valued at $61.3 million.

Copyright 2004 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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