[ISN] New FBI unit takes aim at high-tech crooks in region

From: mea culpa (jerichoat_private)
Date: Wed Aug 26 1998 - 15:32:34 PDT

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    New FBI unit takes aim at high-tech crooks in region
    By Deborah Solomon 
    August 25, 1998 
    Before dawn on a recent Wednesday, San Diego FBI agents descended on a
    house in Linda Vista armed with a warrant and a rolling cart. 
    The agents had no need for the tweezers and little plastic bags they would
    normally bring to gather evidence at a crime scene. They were hunting for
    just one item -- a computer. 
    On its hard drive, they believed, was incriminating evidence against a
    teen-age hacker who had allegedly tapped into a national paging company's
    computer system and stolen more than $1 million. 
    Carting away the computer was easy. Accessing its hard drive and
    deciphering the clues it held was the tricky part. 
    The job fell to San Diego's new FBI cybercrime unit -- a team of nine FBI
    agents devoted solely to tracking, investigating and solving
    computer-assisted crimes. The team was created earlier this month in an
    attempt to deal with the region's growing computer crime. San Diego is the
    eighth city in the nation to get such a team. 
    The FBI has dubbed high-tech misdeeds "the crime of the 21st century," 
    and San Diego, home of a burgeoning high-tech industry, is a major target. 
    "We're reaching a point where we need this capability here," said William
    D. Gore, the FBI's special agent in charge. "This is . . . the way people
    communicate, store records and conduct business, so it's almost natural
    that it's now the way people commit crimes." 
    Local companies such as Qualcomm and ElectriCiti, an Internet service
    provider, have already fallen victim to hackers. Qualcomm was violated by
    uber-hacker Kevin Mitnick, who allegedly stole proprietary software
    designed for the company's wireless phones.  ElectriCiti lost $100,000 to
    a local teen who gained access to customer accounts and set up
    pornographic Web sites. 
    Just one month ago, a computer at the San Diego Supercomputer Center was
    accessed by a hacker who found a weakness on a machine set up by students.
    And in the same month, an 18-year-old Linda Vista teen was arrested at his
    mother's house after allegedly hacking into PageNet, a Dallas-based paging
    company, and setting up voice mailboxes and pager accounts. 
    The recent problems have shed light on just how susceptible computer
    systems are, and those in the industry say the FBI's high-tech team is a
    welcome addition here. 
    "In the San Diego area a lot more people are broken into than we hear
    about," said Tom Perrine, manager of the supercomputer center's security
    technologies department. "Nobody wants to talk about it, but places that
    say they've never had an intrusion either just don't know it or don't want
    it made public. We're not the only city that needs a high-tech team, but
    I'm glad the FBI is here." 
    Gore said break-ins are expected to multiply in San Diego because of the
    number of telecommunications, biotechnology and high-tech firms.  Patents,
    software and other information that's stored on computers can be worth big
    bucks if a hacker can access it. Other criminals want to break into a
    system for bragging rights or will try to exploit a system's vulnerability
    just for the thrill. 
    "Everything physical starts as a design in a computer," Perrine said. 
    "Whether it's drawings of new golf clubs, new case designs, cell phone
     software or new drugs. All of that at some time is in a computer." 
    The computer's growing importance as a place to conduct business and store
    records has led to an explosion in cybercrime, according to the FBI. 
    The increase has prompted attention from lawmakers, who have created laws
    to protect companies and given agencies such as the FBI broad jurisdiction
    in conducting searches. 
    But tough laws aren't enough to bring hackers to justice. In order to
    crack these cases, Gore said, the FBI needs agents who are well-versed in
    technology and can understand the same systems the hackers know
    "To figure out how people compromise a system, the agents have to know
    that system inside and out," said Stewart B. Roberts, supervisory special
    agent of the high-tech squad. 
    To achieve this, the high-tech squad will spend about 20 percent of its
    time in training. Some of the instructors will be FBI agents, others will
    be representatives from the companies the FBI is trying to protect. 
    Last week, the squad met with the San Diego Regional Information Watch, a
    group comprised of business, university, law enforcement and military
    officials devoted to squashing cybercrime. 
    The group meets once a month to talk about how to detect, prevent and stop
    hackers from violating systems. 
    Perrine, whose supercomputer center is part of the group, said the FBI's
    high-tech unit will make it easier for the group to prosecute hackers. 
    "We're to the point where we can usually detect the intrusions and trace
    it back to the real person, but there's always been this problem of
    closing the loop and starting prosecution," Perrine said. "This will help
    bring us full circle."
    Right now the squad has only a handful of cases. But Gore and Roberts
    expect a full caseload once word gets out that the FBI is delving into
    cybercrime in San Diego.
    Along with hackers, the high-tech squad is also looking into crimes in
    which a computer is used as an accessory. Using a computer to aid in a
    crime is illegal, Gore said, and the team will be on the lookout for those
    "Drug dealers are storing records on their computers, and people involved
    in pornography are using computers to send and receive illegal images,"
    Gore said. "Many of the crimes are the same, but now the criminals have
    new tools to help them. Our job is to make sure we understand and are
    familiar with those same tools so we can stop them." 
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