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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Cybersleuths Find Net Crime Trail

LONDON -- It has become a familiar tactic in a criminal investigator's arsenal: the seizure of a suspect's personal computer for the purpose of dissecting the hard drive for possible clues or motives.

FBI agents did just that in the days after the Sept. 11 plane hijack attacks on America, when they confiscated two computers from a public library in Delray Beach, Florida, that were allegedly used by suspects.

A subsequent computer search revealed a host of clues from the electronic footprints left behind by hijacking suspects that pointed to a worldwide web of conspirators that stretched to Germany, Saudi Arabia and ultimately, Afghanistan.

The suspects had downloaded a "significant amount of information" about crop-dusting, U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft told a Congressional committee in September. The discovery prompted U.S. officials to temporarily ground all crop-dusting planes.

In the world of cops and robbers, cyber-sleuthing has become an essential part of the job. Police organizations such as Spain's Guardia Civil use its official web site to alert the public to new criminal threats and solicit tips, while the governments of Japan and South Korea have begun working with the business sector to crack down on hacking attacks. At the same time, the medium's global reach has created a new variety of borderless crimes, authorities say.

"What will be interesting to see is the upcoming generation," said an investigator at the National Crime Information Center in London, who asked not to be named. "Once they start going through the prison system, [Internet-related crimes] will get really interesting."

But, authorities add, because so many incidents go unreported, there are no reliable statistics on cybercrime.

Detective work is increasingly moving from seedy back alleyways to Internet chat rooms and back onto the streets, essentially following in the footsteps of criminals who use the Internet to plan all manners of crimes -- from credit card fraud to murder, investigators say.

Last year, incoming Interpol Secretary General Ronald Noble identified high-tech crime as "one of the new security threats." In one of his first acts, he tripled the size of the force's cybercrime unit and increased its budget, said Michael Holstein, crime intelligence officer at Interpol.

Holstein said a main function of the unit is to establish for its 179 member states a standard procedure for digital evidence collection. Investigators lament that it can be difficult to get digital evidence admitted into a court proceeding.

To stay ahead of the changing face of crime, law enforcement officials and politicians are seeking greater powers to conduct online surveillance. Ashcroft, for instance, has asked a House judiciary committee for increased authority to conduct telephone and Internet wiretaps to aid in "the war on terrorism."

Congress did pass a law expanding security powers, though that specific request was turned down. But civil liberties groups believe growing public sentiment to step up homeland security could result in the creation of greater police powers.

In September, the Council of Europe approved the Convention on Cybercrime, a historic treatise that lays the foundation for legislation allowing for a greater sharing of information between countries to combat the rise of cybercrime.

The treatise isn't binding, but instead would have to be adopted into law by its 43 European member states and five outside countries including the United States, Canada and Japan.

The treaty is broad, covering crimes committed on the Internet such as fraud, child pornography and violations of computer network security. It also sets up global policing procedures for conducting computer searches, interception of e-mails and extradition of criminal suspects.

"What the treaty does is to bring together law enforcement power with defining offenses, and it adds international cooperation so that countries can assist one another," said Peter Csonka, director general of legal affairs for the Council of Europe.

Yaman Akdeniz, director of Cyber-rights.org, a British human rights group, fears the treaty may be too broad. "It's not balanced. It's too favorable to the law enforcement community," said Akdeniz.

It may take years before most countries actually adopt the council's recommendations into law. But observers point out that the effects are already evident. Since Sept. 11, criminal investigators are sharing information with greater regularity.

"Our concept is to have as many member states get involved in an investigation as possible," said Interpol's Holstein.