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High tech crime calls for high-tech crimefighting

  • Article by: PAUL LEVY
  • Star Tribune
  • May 29, 2012 - 4:44 PM

Craig Schmidt was talking about botnets, almost matter-of-factly.

A botnet is a collection of compromised computers connected to the Internet. Schmidt is the senior manager of investigation of Microsoft's digital crimes unit. And, besides the fact that Schmidt grew up in Spring Lake Park, what do botnets have to do with Anoka County?

Quite a bit, actually.

Members of the Anoka County attorney and sheriff's offices -- considered local pioneers in the investigation of cyber crime and the use of computer forensics -- met recently with investigative and crime specialists from Microsoft. The two-day closed conference at Anoka-Ramsey Community College in Coon Rapids offered strategies in fighting modern crimes with modern technology.

Topics included e-mail header analysis, social networking, instant messaging, steganography (writing hidden messages), basic encryption, anonymization techniques, Internet service providers and domain name systems. These are topics that many law enforcement officials might never have approached 10 years ago. But for a video-game-playing, text-messaging generation that has grown up wearing ear buds and considers a cellphone to be the modern-day pocket watch, using all this technology is as natural as breathing.

Check the list

"If somebody claims to have an alibi in a murder case, we check their phone to see where they've been, when and who they were contacting," said County Attorney Tony Palumbo.

"A suspected drug dealer? Check the phone and you've got their customer list."

The answers to crimes often can be found in text messages, on Facebook pages or within e-mail trails. But with new technology come new crimes: identity theft, child pornography, cyber bullying, computer viruses, on-line threats, stalking. But from the GPS on the dashboard to the black box under the hood, there are technical advances that the public now takes for granted but authorities use to solve crime.

"It's almost like organized crime," Schmidt said. "A hacker group took the FBI off the Internet."

Schmidt was a computer geek as a child who became a federal law enforcement agent before moving to Microsoft.

"What drives the creation of a botnet?" Schmidt asked. "What do the bad guys do with it?

"These are crimes that didn't exist for previous generations, but they're capable of immobilizing an entire community. We want to help law enforcement think about these crimes in new ways.

"Instead of throwing them a fish, we're trying to teach them how to fish."

Room to investigate

With its state-of-the-art sheriff's office, which includes a tri-county forensic lab, Anoka County has tools for fighting cyber crime that make other counties envious. There is an entire room, filled with devices costing between $5,000 and $7,000 each, devoted to analyzing cellphones. There is another room for video and computer forensics.

But all these tools are constantly changing.

"For most people, gone are the days of relying on a digital camera and computer at home," said Anoka County Detective Brian Hill. "Everyone has a cellphone now. And that cellphone is used to access the Internet, take pictures, send text messages and store information. Some people actually use their phones to make calls.

"If I go to the store, I can sit in the parking lot and research the product before I consider making a purchase," Hill said. "Or, you saw how the social network could help a small company like Surly Brewery spread its message.

"Unfortunately, cellphones and the Internet can be used by criminals for other reasons."

No more he said-she said

Investigators have traced text-message trails in sexual-assault cases or confiscated computers in child-porn cases. Brooklyn Park and Hennepin County investigators used cellphone records to trace the journey of murder suspect Eddie Matthew Mosley from St. Louis to Brooklyn Park, where DeLois Brown and her elderly parents were shot and killed at Brown's home daycare. Mosley has been charged with second-degree murder in the case.

"Gone are the days of 10 years ago when we had to rely on he said-she said testimony," Hill said. "Now the dialogue can be found in text messages. We still have to put a person behind the keyboard, attach these messages to individuals, but getting at the information is easier.

"There's just so much more of it!"

Detective Scott Schlender is one of a half-dozen members of the Anoka County Sheriff's Office who specialize in computer forensics. As technology changes, so has human nature, he says.

"In the old days, if you were mad at somebody, you'd call them up and let them have it on the phone," Schlender said. "Now, with technology, people sending messages believe it's anonymous because they've removed the personal interaction. They have more courage when they're not face to face. Sometimes they're more hurtful. And sometimes they create a false identity. They create personas to get other people in trouble."

Documents, music and video are pirated. Porn can be sent quickly and in great volume. Internet petitions and rallying make it easier to jump on the bullying bandwagon -- sometimes leading to suicides, Schlender said.

Sometimes, the greatest tool for a detective or prosecutor is common sense.

"You still have to have an understanding of what happened," Schlender said.

Paul Levy • 612-673-4419

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