Archive for Thursday, August 23, 2001

Computers display criminal tendencies

August 23, 2001

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— The thing about criminals is, even some of the smartest are not very bright. Even the former college professor with a Berkeley degree in marine biology who also was a bank robber.

When Michael Dickman robbed 12 banks here in 1999, he would hand tellers attention-getting notes threatening "to tear your throat out" or warning that "a bomb has been placed in this building." He printed these notes using his computer and did not realize that even after he clicked "delete" they had a kind of immortality on his hard drive. They were found there by FBI technicians gifted at retrieving information from computers.

Like virtually every modern advance of technology, computers have entered the arsenals of, and expanded the opportunities for, criminal enterprises. The telegraph, telephone, camera, automobile, typewriter (remember how the "fingerprint" of Alger Hiss' Woodstock typewriter helped convict him) these and other technologies increased the range of old criminal activities and the variety of new ones. Now law enforcement must respond to the permeation of society by computers, and computer skills, which are giving rise to law-enforcement problems much more complex than those posed by Dickman.

On a mesa near the intersection of Interstates 15 and 8 that is how Southern Californians describe things, with reference to freeways stands the local FBI headquarters, across the street from which, in a modern glass building, is a potentially powerful weapon in the endless war against the ever-evolving problem of crime. The weapon is the Regional Computer Forensic Laboratory (RCFL), which is shared by the FBI and 13 other agencies from 19 Southern California jurisdictions.

Bill Gore, special agent in charge of the FBI's office here, says that where computers are concerned, there are not a lot of new crimes, there are mostly old ones committed with new techniques. For example, companies' proprietary information often is stored in, and hence stolen from, computers rather than files.

However, with schools teaching keyboarding in kindergarten, computer literacy is becoming nearly universal. Hence, America has, at least technologically, a more intellectually up-scale criminal class, one capable of more sophisticated offenses. For example, The Washington Post recently reported on how criminals exploit widespread security lapses of financial institutions to commit "identity theft."

More than 500,000 cases a year make this Information Age opportunity one of the fastest-growing white-collar crimes. The Post reports that James Jackson of Memphis selected some prominent people from "Who's Who in America" and bought dossiers on them including Social Security numbers and locations of bank accounts from "information brokers" selling on the Internet. He then inveigled clerks at some banks and other financial institutions to give bank account and credit card numbers, change billing addresses and even, in one case, to wire $300,000 to jewelers, some of them online.

Such crimes are relatively easy to prevent by financial institutions' vigilance. However, crimes facilitated by encryption present more daunting challenges, as in the FBI's dueling with Nicodemo Scarfo, the 35-year-old son of Nicodemo "Little Nicky" Scarfo, a reputed Philadelphia mob boss. The son, an apple that allegedly did not fall far from the tree, is suspected of being an associate of the Gambino crime family and of running a computerized sports-betting and loan-sharking operation in New Jersey.

The Post has reported how the FBI defeated the younger Scarfo's method of protecting his files with an encryption program that can be purchased on the Internet for as little as $50. FBI agents with a search warrant copied Scarfo's computer files but could not unscramble the encryption without the password. So they obtained another warrant and secretly installed on his computer something that records every keystroke.

Defenders of privacy rights, who are also defenders of encryption, worry about such "key-logging" technology it, too, is commercially available because law enforcement agencies can install it under search warrants, which are easier to obtain and less restrictive than court-approved wiretaps.

In any case, the "key-logging" surveillance revealed the password. It was nds09813-050 Scarfo's father's prisoner identification number. Call that filial piety and family values.

Technology evenhandedly serves the nice and the not nice, so law enforcement needs other RCFLs. Since the one in San Diego opened in 2000, foreigners from Singapore to Scotland Yard have visited it. For a pittance, relative to the big-ticket appropriations, this lab can be replicated around the nation, which needs new skills and national protocols for refining, interpreting and making use of computer data germane to law enforcement. Bear in mind Nicodemo Scarfo, one manifestation of computer literacy in the Information Age.




George Will is a columnist for Washington Post Writers Group.

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