Baranoff couldn't speak specifically about the federal investigation into the Target breach, since the case is ongoing, but he talked candidly about the growing threat of large-scale, financially motivated cybercrimes and the Secret Service's efforts to stop them.
Behind every major breach, there's usually a team of highly specialized cybercriminals who mainly know each other through online nicknames and reputations. Most aren't motivated by politics, just greed, Baranoff says.
If the hackers do invest in anything, it's their own operations. An increasing number are building their own server farms, sometimes leasing space to other criminals, making it harder for law enforcement to track them down.
Further complicating matters, Baranoff says the vast majority of high-level cybercriminals tend to be Russian speakers based in former Soviet and Eastern European countries, which largely puts them out of the reach of U.S. authorities.
But the Secret Service has strong ties with cybercrime agencies in many countries — including The Netherlands, Germany and the United Kingdom — and has found others to be helpful as well, even if they don't have extradition treaties with the United States.
While best known for protecting the president of the United States, the U.S. Secret Service was originally formed in 1865 to investigate crimes related to counterfeit currency. The passage of the Patriot Act following the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks expanded its role in investigating computer-related crimes.
From the agency's unassuming headquarters a few blocks from the bustle of the National Mall, special agents infiltrate online forums frequented by hackers, monitoring their activities, and creating online undercover identities in hopes of infiltrating criminal networks.
The same kinds of activities take place at the Secret Service's other electronic crimes task forces in the U.S. and overseas. The tactics the investigators use are surprisingly similar to the law enforcement methods used by traditional beat cops everywhere. But digital investigations come with their own challenges. And based on the growing volume of stolen data now up for sale, hackers are becoming more sophisticated and more successful at evading justice.