- The Washington Times - Saturday, November 25, 2006

Writing in 1964, the late Judge Henry Friendly noted that, “in our complex society, the accountant’s certificate and the lawyer’s opinion can be instruments of pecuniary loss more potent than the chisel or the crowbar.” Had he written in today’s post-September 11, 2001, world, he might have observed that the Internet could become an instrument for crime or terror more potent than the hijacked airplane or the bomb.

The New York City Police Department recently announced it had broken up an international multibillion-dollar sports gambling ring by executing a search warrant in a Long Island hotel room where they seized a laptop computer while its owner, a big-time kingpin bookie, attended a wedding. The bookies had plied their trade in an Internet-based betting operation.

The computer was turned over to the NYPD’s “computer crime squad,” a team of geek cops who trawled through the hard drive to access the files in place and “monitor” everything done on the computer thereafter. Eventually, enough evidence was amassed to arrest 24 other alleged members of the ring, including a scout for the Washington Nationals.

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Surveillance of computers has become the darling of the nursery in the government’s insatiable thirst for intelligence about criminal and terrorist activity. It should not be surprising that the NYPD has developed a “computer crime squad” — officers expert in intercepting e-mails, monitoring Web sites and decrypting information sent from a computer. Similar units exist at the FBI, National Security Agency and Central Intelligence Agency. While electronic surveillance, such as keying in on wi-fi transmissions or telephone lines. would seem the order of the day, sometimes it is necessary, as was the case in New York, to gain physical access to the computer.

How does the government find terrorists and criminals who use the Net to work their wicked will? One way is well known. Everyone operating on the Internet has an identifying Internet Protocol (IP) address — the equivalent of a conventional phone number. When someone visits a Web site, the IP address is logged on files hosted by the Web site’s Internet provider such as Microsoft. If the Internet provider is located in the United States or a friendly country, it is relatively easy to identify the visitor to the Web site and place him under surveillance or arrest.

Techniques such as these are credited with foiling the London plot to blow up airliners in flight, as well as at least six arrests that broke up terrorist cells operating in the United States. The government claims there are more than 4,000 al Qaeda Web sites, most of which have gone online since September 11 and disseminate propaganda to the faithful. One Web site even featured a video of a beheading.

Since such Web sites are closely monitored by the hounds, many are password-protected by the fox. The authorities’ challenge is to evaluate the information on the Web site, identify its owner and its visitors and take appropriate action, possibly closing down the Web site in certain circumstances.

Terrorist Web sites may be used to disseminate propaganda, provide a recipe for making explosive devices or coordinating an operation. For example, when al Qaeda leaders in Iraq wanted to get the word out they had deployed highly trained explosives teams in other countries, they posted their message in Arab language Internet chatrooms frequented by al Qaeda operatives and supporters, as well as watchful computer geeks employed by the CIA. Such militant chatrooms have even contained instructions on how to use advanced e-mail encryption to conceal messages from the authorities.

Of course, these procedures, like wiretapping and other forms of electronic surveillance, make civil libertarians, obsessed with the protection of privacy rights, cringe. But we are said to be at war, and monitoring the Net has become an important feature of the government’s overall surveillance operation. To show the evolution, the CIA’s Foreign Broadcast Information Service (FBIS) was initially established in the 1940s to collect and translate foreign open-source intelligence information (mostly newspapers and magazines). Now, the FBIS service regularly includes translations from many terrorist or terrorist-linked Web sites and chatrooms. The data provide an unprecedented inside look at how terrorist groups work. They also offer a series of dots which, if connected, could provide a trail to transnational terrorist operations or actors.

Rarely in the annals of government moves against organized crime has there been the instant access to reliable information about the plotters, their plans and their identities. The criminals and their pursuers have all gone cyber. What would Judge Friendly have made of that?

James D. Zirin is a lawyer in New York and co-hosts the cable talk show “Digital Age.”

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