081203-N-2147L-390 NORFOLK, Va. (Dec. 3, 2008) Sailors on the watch-floor of the Navy Cyber Defense Operations Command monitor, analyze, detect and defensively respond to unauthorized activity within U.S. Navy information systems and computer networks. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communications Specialist 1st Class Corey Lewis/Released). MC1 Corey Lewis

Digital times mean digital crimes. But catching and convicting criminals, or even nations, that dabble in digital espionage, cyber attacks, and cyber terrorism is no easy task. Google – and the U.S. State Department – recently pointed the finger at China for a string of sophisticated cyber attacks on U.S. companies, but proving guilt in the matter will be tricky. Then there are the buckets of data that intelligence agencies pull from captured laptops and hard drives in terror sweeps; we have the files, but it can be difficult to figure out who’s aiding America’s enemies or what they are up to. Enter DARPA’s Cyber Genome Program, aimed at creating a paternity test for digital artifacts.

The DoD’s future-tech think tank has issued a call for technologies that will bolster America’s digital defenses by collecting, identifying and tracing the lineage of software, data and digital files. To wit:

The Cyber Genome Program will encompass several program phases and technical areas of interest. Each of the technical areas will develop the cyber equivalent of fingerprints or DNA to facilitate developing the digital equivalent of genotype, as well as observed and inferred phenotype in order to determine the identity, lineage, and provenance of digital artifacts and users.

The ability to look at a file and trace it back to its source would help intelligence and law enforcement not only seek justice when cyber crimes are committed, but intercept threats as they are unfolding in cyberspace.

Of course, there’s the dark side to all this. If this kind of digital “genome” is developed, it means the government can trace any document you create straight back to your PC – and you. The law-abiding among us may not mind, but the privacy protection types will likely have something to say about the government snatching data from the Web and tracing it back to the source. If Facebook and “To Catch A Predator” have taught us anything, it’s that someone is always watching what we do online, but we might have felt a bit more comfortable when it wasn’t necessarily Big Brother.