Technology key to tracking down Internet crime

A recently formed working group focused on rooting out Internet-related crime may model technologies that law enforcement agencies use to sift through the Internet to keep tabs on online illegal activity.

President Clinton this month established the working group, made up of top government officials, to examine how law enforcement agencies can better investigate and prosecute criminal activities conducted on the Internet, such as the online sale of guns and illegal drugs, fraud and the peddling of child pornography.

The Clinton administration decided to form the group because there was "recognition within the government that there were some real issues" concerning computer crime that needed to be addressed, a White House official said. "There was an explosion [of legislation] at both the federal and the state level, and there was concern that if we passed a lot of legislation without taking a systematic look at this, we would end up with a haphazard approach to the problem."

Among other things, the group will scrutinize the ways in which the government uses technology to crack down on Internet-related crime. Understanding the technologies agencies use now, the White House official said, will help the administration decide how it can improve the investigation and prosecution of online criminal activity in the future.

Some helpful technology applications may come from the FBI, a representative from which will serve on the task force. The FBI is expected to take the lead in developing technology that the federal government will use to comb the Internet in search of criminal activity.

The FBI's Baltimore field office leads a project called Innocent Images, which works to identify and arrest online sexual predators. About 20 agents are assigned to the project full time, said Special Agent Barry Maddox, a spokesman for the field office. Hundreds of other agents and local law enforcement officials in cities nationwide also work with Innocent Images.

The agents join online chat groups about pedophilia or child pornography and also pose as children to try to catch pedophiles who attempt to set up face-to-face meetings. The program, which was established in 1995, has led to 378 arrests and 322 convictions, Maddox said.

Advancements developed elsewhere in the FBI also may be considered by the administration's working group. Such developments include the soon-to-be launched computer crimes squad, which will investigate crimes committed by hackers, and the National Infrastructure Protection Center, which works to prevent people or groups from hacking into vital government systems that operate such things as water supplies and transportation systems.

The group also may look at increasingly sophisticated and powerful Internet search engines as a way to sniff out Internet-related crime, said Rich Kellett, director of the General Services Administration's Emerging Information Technologies Policies Division.

With some companies laboring to "store everything that is on the Internet," Kellett said, "you can imagine what kind of base of information you could put together" with such databases. Combining powerful search engines with enormous databases would provide "interesting cross-sections of what is going on in America, including criminal activity."

Kellett also mentioned the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence, a project involving more than 800,000 computers networked together that share information about radio signals and work together to compute algorithms in the hope of pinpointing evidence of life in outer space. A model like this, he said, could be used to sift through Internet data in search of criminal activity.

One problem with such massive undertakings, he said, is that "the use of all of that information and sorting through it all has tremendous public policy issues, in terms of privacy," Kellett said.

Daniel Boyle, SAS Institute Inc.'s director of the Defense Department and defense intelligence, said the working group likely will consider different ways of using data mining to deal with online criminal activity. The SAS Institute, Cary, N.C., is a major supplier of custom software to the federal government.

With a tidal wave of data coursing through the Internet every day, it would be impossible to successfully locate criminal activity just through pointing and clicking a mouse, Boyle said. What is needed are data-mining software tools that sift through data in search of anomalies or patterns - things that "don't look quite right," he said. "They've got to find them first, and one of the techniques is data mining."

Of use to government investigators, he said, might be "dump logs," or records of people who have visited individual World Wide Web sites. Servers, he said, "create volumes of these logs, [which] are tremendous and...exploding every day." The logs are used by private companies to see who is visiting their sites, but they also could be useful in tracking crime, he said.

Ari Schwartz, a policy analyst at the Washington, D.C.-based Center for Democracy and Technology, cautioned working group members to keep privacy concerns in mind when they draft their report, which is due in December.

"This discussion could lead to a whole new set of monitoring tools," he said. "We hope this doesn't change the way people surf the Net. We don't want to have people think government is monitoring their lives."

Because it is so open, the Internet already has a vital monitoring system in place: the eyes of the millions of people clicking throughout cyberspace. New monitoring tools, he said, may be superfluous.

The government is considering a plan to monitor many non-DOD computers for signs of intrusion. In its quest to protect government computers from outside attacks, the proposed plan, called the Federal Intrusion Detection Network, unnecessarily sacrifices privacy, Schwartz said.

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