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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

U.S. Police Follow Internet Tracks

LEESBURG, Virginia -- Go for a walk, drive a car or dance in the moonlight and chances are, no one notices. Journey on the Internet and a trail is left.

And U.S. police are hot on that trail in a growing number of criminal investigations.

Armed with search warrants, police are looking into the online activities of suspects, and sometimes victims, by seizing evidence from Internet service providers and finding material that people online never dreamed would end up in the hands of the law.

Private e-mail between lovers. The threatening missives of haters. The true identities of people hiding behind screen names in a medium they thought was the essence of secrecy.

"Ultimately, if you break the law, it can be traced," said investigator Ron Horack of the Loudoun County, Virginia, sheriff's department. Horack helps police around the United States apply for search warrants to get material from the county-based America Online, the world's largest Internet service provider with 18 million customers.

"I know who you are and where you live," an anonymous hatemonger e-mailed a 12-year-old girl in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. By peeking into the accounts of Internet providers, police can often say the same thing: They know who the threatening people are and where they live.

This week U.S. authorities said they had charged a northern Virginia pediatrician with possessing child pornography after investigating his AOL account and finding at least 22 explicit images sent to him via e-mail over the course of nearly six months. They said they then found more child pornography on his computer. The doctor could not immediately be reached for comment.

With a warrant, law-enforcement authorities can look at the electronic mail and other online communications of people suspected of a range of serious crimes, getting information not just from a home computer but often the company that provides the Internet, e-mail or chat service. They can do the same with victims, in the process seeing mail from people who corresponded with them but had nothing to do with a crime. Everything from humdrum to-do lists to love letters from illicit digital dalliances becomes potential evidence, and eventually a matter of public record.

"It is a growing risk to privacy," said Marc Rotenberg, executive director of the Electronic Privacy Information Center, who says police should stick to traditional methods such as stings, informants and forensic evidence, which don't invade people's communications.

Said Horack: "If they're going to use the Internet for their crime, we're going to use the Internet to catch them."

Authorities turned to AOL to see some of the online activities of the two high school students who killed 13 other people and themselves in Littleton, Colorado, last month. They've used it to try to track down some of the copycat threats that have closed many schools since.

In the case of the 12-year-old Pennsylvania girl, nothing turned up in the AOL search.

"We have a long-standing policy of cooperation with law enforcement," AOL spokesman Rich D'Amato said.

America Online tells customers it won't read or disclose private communication or personal identifying information except under a "valid legal process."

Other major Internet service providers, or ISPs, as well as separate online e-mail services and Internet hubs like Hotmail and Yahoo, say much the same, although the disclaimers may be hard to find in screens of small print.

So if a spouse is found to be having an online affair with someone known only as Heart4U, the identity of that cyberlover might eventually be uncovered in a divorce proceeding.

Raytheon Inc. obtained subpoenas to identify 21 people, most of them employees, said to have been spreading corporate secrets and gripes in an anonymous online chat room.

It then dropped a lawsuit it had brought against the 21, each identified as "John Doe," indicating to privacy experts that the company had gone to court in the first place only to learn the identities of the chatters. Four employees quit; others entered corporate "counseling."

Privacy advocates worry that authorities could go on increasingly invasive fishing expeditions.

"There are simply many more events that are recorded [online] that would not be recorded in the physical world," Rotenberg said. Meanwhile, tools continue to be developed to protect anonymity - a site called, for one, will relay e-mail, stripping out the sender's identifying information.


Caught in the Web

Some recent cases in which police sought access to the online activities of suspects or victims:

-The stabbing death of a Decatur, Alabama, woman who police say was using her computer around the time of the attack and was still signed on to America Online when her body was discovered.

-A Mishawaka, Indiana, woman, posing as a man online, who formed a relationship with a 15-year-old Iowa girl.

-A man charged with aggravated murder in the shooting death of Penny Chang, 15, of Shaker Heights, Ohio, who had received 60 pages of threatening e-mail and had been harassed on the phone.

-The custodian of an Alexandria, Louisiana, cathedral charged in a church arson. Police were testing his alibi that he was online when the fire started.

-A San Bernardino, California, sheriff's department dispatcher who police say was in collusion with a suspect.

-A masseur found dead with his computer missing in his Las Vegas apartment. Police believe he met clients in chat rooms.

-A Hamden, Connecticut, woman who received a string of threatening and obscene e-mails, one saying: "Everyone has to die someday. Unfortunately your time is near." Police say the sender at one point "said he was a 12-year-old boy from California and was sorry."

-A pediatrician in northern Virginia posing as a 16-year-old girl, charged last week with possessing child pornography that the police say they found in his e-mail.

- The Associated Press