Government Works to Stop Actual Bad Guys in Virtual World

February 17, 2009
by Rita Boland

The dark-hearted members of the human race have found ways to exploit innovations for their own selfish means throughout time. Now, with the ever-growing global dependence on computer networks, criminals are finding new ways to disrupt lives in the real world through enterprise in the cyber one. The U.S. Department of Justice and its allies have adapted their methods and techniques over the past decade and continue to adjust to prevent the morphing illegal activities in cyberspace.

During the past 10 years, the Department of Justice (DOJ) has seen changes in intrusions and cybercases, from the crimes themselves to the types of criminals carrying out the illegal actions. Previously, most computer crimes were perpetrated by lone-wolf hackers, acting independently, often for fame, publicity or the thrill. Today, cybercrime has become more organized, with financial gain serving as the main motive. Attacks often are aimed at financial institutions or designed for identity theft. And instead of some solitary computer geek giggling away as he hacks into networks from his basement, groups of people are now coming together, sometimes in tight organizations and sometimes in more loosely knit associations, to achieve financial ends.

Though the DOJ has seen instances where organized crime uses the Internet to handle some of its activities, most of the online organizations the department battles lack a hierarchy. Instead, people use social networking tools such as instant messenger, forums and e-mail to connect and work together in groups. They buy information so people in different countries or across one nation can work together to perpetrate a crime.

Groups in Romania, for example, are expanding their operations to the recruitment of hackers to help carry out fraud schemes in the United States and other European locations. “The department is working cooperatively—and in large measure successfully—with Romanian law enforcement and prosecutors to help address this threat,” John Lynch, deputy chief for computer crime in the computer crime and intellectual property section, DOJ, says.

In other efforts to address the problem of organized crime in cyberspace, the DOJ has prioritized and targeted these groups and employed resources across the government to address the factions. The resources include collecting and synthesizing law enforcement and intelligence information on these targets. The Law Enforcement Strategy to Combat International Organized Crime, announced by the U.S. Attorney General in April 2008, specifically addresses the threats these groups pose in cyberspace.

In terms of cybercrime and cybersecurity, the cooperative strategy builds on years of foundational work by the DOJ in international organizations such as the G8, Interpol and the Council of Europe.

Operationally, prosecutors and law enforcement in the United States work on new tools and methods to collaborate and exchange information quickly and efficiently. One example is the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s (FBI’s) N-DEx initiative, which brings together law enforcement information from across agencies and jurisdictions so that it can be searched quickly and efficiently. 

Crimes being perpetrated in cyberspace and the methods of carrying them out force the DOJ to adapt its techniques both in apprehending and prosecuting the guilty parties. Officials follow both electronic and money trails, and they sometimes find the money trail to be more efficient to trace.

Jurisdiction also is often an issue in cybercrimes. Crimes occur across state, district and other boundaries, and Lynch acknowledges that working with state and local law enforcement, international partners and other agencies to prosecute criminals successfully can create challenges.

While officials at the DOJ decline to comment on specific current or future cyberoperations, Lynch does explain that the department continues to evaluate the changing shape of criminal behavior. Any information discovered through those efforts will be rolled into the department’s future initiatives.

Though the department will not comment directly on its research and development, DOJ officials share that the department works with partners across the public and private sector to ensure the acquisition of necessary capabilities.

The department continues to examine the tools for investigating crimes on the network to ensure they keep up with current technologies. Beyond basic law enforcement technology, officials with the department must be aware of financial and banking systems operation, and they must share information they learn during investigations with the private sector so institutions can better secure themselves in the future. Officials also continually examine the balance between privacy and law enforcement needs.

Lynch shares that the military and intelligence communities focus on the cyberterrorism threat in partnership with the DOJ. State-sponsored computer crimes often come to the department as a law enforcement issue.

As cybercrime and cyberoperations continue to advance and change, the law has to adjust as well. Several recommendations for changes to the U.S. Code for computer crime were enacted by Congress in August 2008. Lynch explains that when looking at appropriate statutory approaches, the DOJ tries to avoid language that is too specific about technologies and methods so the statute can be used to prosecute new forms of criminality as they emerge.  


Read an expanded version of this article in the March 2009 issue of SIGNAL Magazine, in the mail to AFCEA members and subscribers March 2, 2009. For more information about purchasing this issue, joining AFCEA or subscribing to SIGNAL, contact AFCEA Member Services.