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Declan McCullagh

Staff Writer, CNET

WASHINGTON–Technology executives from the largest U.S. software companies have called on President Bush to create a high-level commission to address cybercrime and identity theft.

During a meeting with administration officials Thursday, chief technology officers from more than a dozen companies said the threat of malicious Internet incidents has become so great that a high-profile governmental response is necessary.

“I think the reaction was very positive,” Chris Voice of Entrust told reporters at a press event organized by the Business Software Alliance after the meeting.

Among the administration officials present were Bush’s chief science adviser, John Marburger; Phil Bond, the Commerce Department’s undersecretary for technology; Ben Wu, assistant secretary for technology policy; and Karen Evans, the White House’s e-government administrator.

Presidential commissions occasionally can capture national attention and exert wide influence by focusing attention on a topic. President Bush’s Social Security commission during his first term opened the door to this year’s debate about self-funded retirement accounts, and the Warren Commission’s report on President Kennedy’s assassination became a popular read even though its findings are still disputed today.

The executives’ trek to the nation’s capital comes as online nuisances such as spam, “phishing” attacks, worms and viruses are becoming more prevalent and worrisome. Banks are the most frequent target of phishing scams, according to a recent report, and some technology companies are concerned that more people may simply turn off their computer and stop going online as much.

Though such scams and attacks are already illegal under U.S. law, other countries’ prohibitions may not be as clear. “We’re asking in part that the government do what only the government can do, which is to engage other governments,” said Craig Mundie, Microsoft’s chief technology officer. “What (should be) the role of the State Department, not just the Justice Department?”

Mundie also warned that some cyberscofflaws get off easy and suggested that Congress should boost punishments meted out under existing laws. “The penalties are substantially less (than auto theft),” Mundie said. “Those are the kind of things that are going to require some evaluation.”