the public. Furthermore, the mere existence of a simple law enforcement Web site sends a clear signal to the public that the agency is modern and technologically aware. Most law enforcement computer evidence specialists have the necessary tools to create Web pages, and the cost of maintaining a site is just a few dollars a month. Some Internet service providers (ISPs) even provide free Web space as part of their services for e-mail clients. Cost should no longer be an issue for law enforcement agencies, and the time is right.

ISP or AOL?

Before intelligent decisions can be made regarding the merits of using law enforcement e-mail and Internet public relations, some areas of confusion need to be clarified. Many computer users don't fully understand the differences between ISPs and online computer services such as CompuServe and America Online. The differences are quite distinct and each have advantages and disadvantages.

An ISP essentially provides a connection or link to the Internet. The computer user normally connects to the ISP using a modem over a local or toll-free phone line. Some of these providers are small, one-man businesses that may or may not have good physical security at their computer sites. Some operate without any reliable level of computer security and leave security issues up to the user. However, ISPs usually offer the best price and, in some cities can even be obtained free of charge.

A security tour of the ISPs computer facility is normally the recommended first step for a law enforcement agency. If the facility doubles as the headquarters for the local thugs, it might be wise to move on to the next provider. But again, most Internet security concerns can be eliminated through the use of rock-solid file encryption. Many times a local ISP will also make a Web site available free of charge to law enforcement agencies that have purchased e-mail services. Such Web pages are easily created by using any one of the popular word processing programs that have HTML export capabilities. More sophisticated programs are available for under $100.

Online services are essentially huge computer networks of diverse computer users. These networks are self-contained, but also provide Internet connectivity. As with ISPs, these services are also accessed by computer users through the use of modems connected to local or toll-free, long-distance telephone lines. However, because of the nature of these large networks, there is a substantial security layer between the end user and the Internet. Online services are owned and managed by huge corporations that are security-oriented. This can be a real plus if physical security of the computer network is a concern.

Online service companies like CompuServe and America Online can be compared with television cable service providers. Cable companies provide direct access to local television channels as well as their own special channels and featured promotions like HBO and Showtime. In a similar fashion, online services give you access to the Internet along with specialized forums and other member services. Law enforcement forums on CompuServe include the Police Forum, Safetynet Forum and the Time Warner Crime Forum, to mention just a few. However, just like a cable service, add-ons can run up the cost, depending on the forum involved and the duration of access time involved.

Although a higher degree of security is provided with an online service, protection remains a concern. Any e-mail messages routed over the Internet from an online service are insecure, and file attachments can be a problem with this type of e-mail. As a result, file encryption may not be a viable safeguard unless the e-mail is routed to another user who happens to use the same online service. Also, online services do not normally provide law enforcement agencies with the ability to have their own Web sites.