Modern Day Deputizing

Wayne County, Mich., turns to the private sector for help in fighting Internet crime.

by / March 3, 2001
Wayne County, Michigans Internet Crimes Task Force has had a very successful run since its formation in 1998, making 30 felony arrests of people for Internet-related crimes.

The bulk of those arrests have been for sex-related crimes involving children. Other arrests have involved identity theft and physicians who prescribed medications such as Viagra and Propecia in violation of Michigan law, which requires doctors to examine patients before issuing a prescription. In addition, investigators made an arrest for the distribution of gamma hydroxy butyrate, or GHB, known as the "date rape" drug.

Although the task force is obviously working well, one arrest in particular showed Sheriff Robert Ficano that his task force might be intellectually outgunned.

About 18 months ago, the task force arrested and convicted a 15-year-old who had been distributing child pornography, apparently as some sort of gag. Sheriff Ficano told the Detroit Free Press that it soon became clear that the youth "knew more than we did" about computer technology.

Its a well-documented problem: Governments and government agencies have much more difficulty than the private sector in keeping up with technological advances.

This problem is perhaps most acute in the world of law enforcement. Agents across the country find themselves attempting to out-sleuth criminals who are equipped with fast, powerful computers and software designed to encrypt, decrypt, crack passwords or penetrate corporate and personal firewalls.

Raising the Collective IQ

Ficano started looking for help, forming the Internet Crime Commission in early December to seek assistance from the private sector. The commission met for the first time in January.

So far, 15 companies, including EDS,Xerox, Novell, General Dynamics and Ameritech, have agreed to join the commission. The firms will provide approximately $500,000 in staff time, technical assistance and high-speed computer equipment to the task force.

"We feel the task force is very advanced in what were doing, yet we realize that we have all these partners in the private sector that can help us out," Ficano said. "Theyve indicated that theyll be able to contribute consulting experts, equipment and time -- which is the most valuable -- to us."

He said network administrators, information-security experts and fraud examiners from the companies will donate their time to help the five investigators on the task force. Despite the high level of training that the county provides for the investigators, the officers find themselves at a loss in certain situations.

"Whats key for us is the forensic value that these companies bring to us," Ficano said. "Their expertise helps us show that a transmission came from a particular computer. It gets into the evidentiary situations involving the arrest and the conviction. These companies are very good [at] being able to establish [where a transmission comes from] scientifically."

The task forces agents see the commission as a way to mine the private sectors base of knowledge.

"We understand that a lot of resources sit within corporate America," said Stanley Kirk, the task forces director of e-commerce, who acts as the liaison between the business community and the task force. "They have the ability to deal with advanced-technology issues. On the other side, while law enforcement may not necessarily have the same resources of the corporate sector, law enforcement does have the power of the subpoena, the search warrant and the like.

"The thoughts were to marry the two -- to get the best practices of corporate America and marry it with what law enforcement has," Kirk said. "Its also key to have corporations involved with what we do from the standpoint that they constantly have their finger on the pulse of whats happening in e-commerce and e-business."

Public/Private Law Enforcement

When creating the commission, members of the task force quickly learned just how much help they needed, said Ralph Kinney, deputy chief of staff of the Wayne County Sheriffs Office.

"We in law enforcement are collectively about 10 years behind the learning curve when it comes to these high-tech crime investigations," Kinney said. "We all need to become more attuned to these types of crimes and develop the skills and abilities to investigate. Its getting to where if law enforcement doesnt catch up, people will be able to act without any fear of capture when theyre committing crimes on the Internet."

The very nature of Internet crime is forcing law enforcement personnel to become computer experts, Kinney said, a task thats difficult for law enforcement agencies to pull off. Its one thing to be an accomplished investigator, as the Wayne County task force members are proving themselves to be. Now, in addition, the newly created commission allows those officers to make use of corporate computer expertise not otherwise available.

Kirk said corporate members of the commission are surprised at what the task force has been able to accomplish with standard-issue equipment. Kinney said one of the commissions corporate members was throwing away equipment superior to what the task force was using -- equipment that will now be used by the task force.

Besides helping the task force with equipment and training, corporate members of the commission lend valuable assistance in reorganizing back-office business processes.

"It will be to our advantage to develop a partnership with corporate America in terms of how you deal with technology; how you start to develop your processes to handle your cases; pretty much how you can run your operation," Kirk said. "For example, here in Detroit, Blue Cross/Blue Shield gets about 150,000 claims per day. They could have about 1 million pages going through a business process per day.

"Theyve developed expertise on how you manage paper through a whole business process," he said. "We can learn from them on how they manage information, how they share it with their customers and how they share it with their employees. Theres a lot of knowledge we can get from the corporate side."

Willing to Help

While exact roles of the commissions corporate members are undefined, they are looking forward to helping the task force in whatever ways are necessary.

"What well be providing goes along the lines of intellectual capital," said Eddie Bugg, a client executive of EDS. "We have people who really understand the technology aspect of what the task force is trying to do -- the infrastructure, the systems, how data flows back and forth between computers across telephone lines or cable and encryption."

The range of companies participating in the commission also allows for other issues to be addressed, Bugg said. This creates an environment in which commission members learn not only how to protect citizens, but also how businesses can protect themselves.

Bugg said he was impressed with what the task force has accomplished, given the agents lack of detailed technical knowledge and rapidly evolving technology.

"The difference between them and us is that we have people whose job it is to stay in touch with all of the different technological things going on," Bugg said. "The sheriffs office cant do that. They just dont have the funding and the resources. Thats where they see us coming in. Well keep them up to date."

Sheriff Ficano said this type of partnership is the future, despite the historical reluctance of law enforcement to open up.

"Law enforcement has traditionally been reactive," Ficano said. "These kinds of partnerships allow law enforcement to be proactive."