Meet the face of cybersecurity.

He’s Albert Gonzalez, the 28-year-old criminal wunderkind who is the alleged mastermind behind the information breach at Hannaford Bros., plus many others. For years, he served as a FBI informant into the world of cyber-criminals, showing authorities how easy it is to steal another’s identity.

Then, almost to show off, he’s accused of going and doing it again — with style. In court papers filed in Miami, Fla., Gonzalez’s hometown, he’s proclaimed as the perpetrator of the country’s greatest cybercrimes.

How? According to the Boston Globe, Gonzalez got his start as a disaffected high-schooler, who honed his hacking skills while driving around South Florida with a friend, a wireless laptop, and the ability to spot vulnerable, insecure computer networks — essentially, a high-tech vandal.

From there, he reportedly graduated to grander and grander schemes — nicknamed with rap songs — and could earn $100,000 in one weekend from selling stolen identities. The Globe reported he even once threw himself a $75,000 birthday party. 

Gonzalez’s story is indicative of the difficulty our policymakers have in addressing the immense challenges posed by ensuring cybersecurity. Protecting our digital society from digital pirates is perhaps the greatest under-the-radar need of our government, for which it seems ill-equipped.

Industry, too, seems ill-prepared. Despite the sensitive nature of the information stored by Hannaford and others, stealing it seems like child’s play for those who pulled it off. It seems nothing special is needed to commit the crime of the century, except time, a computer and enthusiasm for the work. Businesses share the responsibility in ensuring their customer information is protected. 

In many ways, these hackers are reminiscent of the cavalier Depression-era gangsters, like John Dillinger, who stole for thrill as well as profit. These desperadoes took advantage of sleepy, Midwestern towns, poorly guarded banks and jurisdictional limits for their sprees.

Only when the feds got involved, the famous G-Men of the FBI, were authorities able to mount an offensive to equal, and conquer, these public enemies. The parallels to today’s hackers indicate the time has arrived again for a fierce, federal response. What form should it take?

That’s what our policymakers need to figure out. Both of our senators, Susan Collins and Olympia Snowe, have targeted cybersecurity as an issue. Snowe has co-sponsored legislation to shore it up, calling it “one of the most urgent national security problems facing our country today.”

Yet the differences between them, just like Gonzalez, illustrate difficulties in developing cybersecurity policy. Collins has criticized the White House’s oversight of cybersecurity, while Snowe’s bill would create a White House office to oversee cybersecurity response.

There are political battles to come over whose authority cybersecurity should fall. Yet the most critical aspect is not administration, but the pursuit of lawbreakers. What kind of federal law enforcement effort is made toward cybersecurity could determine its success.

Until the FBI’s show of force, the noted gangsters of the 1930s operated with impunity and today’s criminal hackers, like Gonzalez, look at themselves as modern-day Dillingers, although with bad haircuts instead of fedoras, and laptops instead of Tommy guns.

It doesn’t matter. Our response should be swift, and the same.

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