The squads, dubbed Computer Hacking and Intellectual Property, or CHIP, units will focus on copyright theft, computer fraud and hacking.
Ashcroft, speaking after meeting with Silicon Valley CEOs at VeriSign offices in Mountain View, California, said he wants to send a message to cybercriminals that they're not immune to prosecution.
"There's this idea somehow that you can get away with it here," he said. "That's an idea we must curtail. There are no free passes in cyberspace."
Ashcroft said the attack on Whitehouse.gov this week--along with viruses such as Melissa and I Love You--are further evidence that the government must work harder to catch cybercriminals.
However, Ashcroft also said that technology companies must do their part. He criticized tech firms for failing to turn to law enforcement when their networks are compromised. After all, he said, banks call the cops when there's a robbery in their branch. Ashcroft said companies that don't contact the FBI--because they're afraid of the hit to their reputations or bottom line--are aiding criminals. "These fears, while understandable, are self-defeating," he said. "A company that does not report crime leaves the criminal free to strike again."
Ashcroft would not comment specifically on the recent detention by federal law enforcement of a Russian computer programmer who created software that allegedly violates the controversial Digital Millennium Copyright Act, a law that makes it illegal to possess or share any program that could be used to crack copyright protection. Ashcroft said it wasn't his job to change laws. "My responsibility is to defend the law," he said.
Ashcroft also credited Robert Mueller, the current FBI director, with aggressively fighting cybercrime. Mueller, who visited the CEOs along with Ashcroft but did not speak at the press conference, is the U.S. attorney in the San Francisco office that issued arrest orders for the Russian programmer.
The switch in leadership at the Department of Justice and FBI has raised questions about the future of a system formerly known as Carnivore, which lets law enforcement intercept electronic transmissions such as email. Civil libertarians worry the system could be used to spy on innocent citizens, and Ashcroft has voiced similar concerns. At the press conference Friday, Ashcroft dodged the issue, saying the FBI no longer has a system called Carnivore (the name has been changed) and that he would explore systems that are "privacy neutral".