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Rather than breaking down doors, authorities take down walls in overture to IT professionals
ATLANTA (CNN) -- The FBI has begun rolling out its InfraGard program, designed to promote understanding and a better relationship among IT professionals and law enforcement. It is creating local chapters to share security information, increase interaction and disseminate alerts.
InfraGard is just one portion of a larger plan to tackle computer crimes as networks become more valuable to international commerce and carry more important information. It began as a pilot project out of the Cleveland field office of the FBI, spawned from an executive order signed in 1996. It's administered through the FBI and the National Infrastructure Protection Center, another relatively new outfit begun by presidential order in 1998.
At the launch of the Atlanta InfraGard chapter, Ted Jackson, agent-in-charge of the Atlanta FBI field office explained how serious computer crime is to authorities.
"This is the new form of terrorism. Someone involved in attacking your system can cause more problems than bombs," Jackson said. "When you're at your computer and do something illegal, and you affect commerce or government, we're going to do everything in our power to bring you before the bars of justice."
The meeting continued with an explanation of the statutes and consequences of computer attacks. Then, Internet Security Systems CEO Tom Noonan detailed how independent security companies can watch over a company's networks, and a federal prosecutor described his role in a computer crime investigation.
This initiative is seen as a way of getting over the biggest problem in computer crime law enforcement: the idea of the government as intrusive troublemakers.
"The real key is to get over the hurdle where victims didn't want to report to the bureau what had happened. The bureau now wants to approach the companies before they're victims, so it's not a cold contact. They get to know you and trust you," says Jim Williams, a former FBI Computer Intrusion Squad agent, now working as an attorney in Chicago.
This plan of breaking down walls is a far cry from 10 years ago, when authorities were just breaking down doors.
On March 1, 1990, Secret Service agents made an unexpected visit to the offices of Steve Jackson Games, a pioneering pencil-and-paper roleplaying game company best known for their AutoDuel and GURPS titles. At the time, the company was working on a new game called GURPS Cyberpunk.
The agents confiscated computers and other equipment during the raid, calling the Cyberpunk game rules "a handbook for computer crime." In fact, it was a game about futuristic credit fraud, talking about systems and tools that don't exist. However, the mere mention of hackers set off warning bells with authorities. Authorities later revealed that they had been watching the activities of game writer Loyd Blankenship since he began talking to security experts and self-described hackers in research for the game.
Due to the raid, SJ Games "very nearly closed its doors," according to the company, and only survived after laying off half its employees. But it also had some other important effects. SJ Games won a suit against the Secret Service, receiving over $300,000 in damages and attorney's fees. Also, inspired from the actions of authorities, the Electronic Frontier Foundation was born. The advocacy group is dedicated to free expression over the Internet.
Looking back on the incident, Steve Jackson holds few grudges but just wishes the authorities would have been more forthcoming.
"We're in good shape now," Jackson says," but ten years ago we were very nearly driven out of business for no reason, just because of a few overzealous, undereducated law officers didn't bother to ask even the most basic questions before raiding our offices.
"The biggest irony of all is that if they had asked for cooperation I would have given them full access. They just assumed that everyone here was some sort of bad guy, and clearly they looked at the raid itself as our punishment," he says. "Anything that encourages agents to see the business community as people -- and vice versa -- will benefit everyone."
Current agents have dedication, tech smarts
InfraGard should alleviate some of Jackson's concerns, as well as overall changes in law enforcement attitudes toward computer crime. As a former FBI agent Williams says, it was difficult in 1990 to be able to justify taking tech investigations more seriously and learning more about them.
"It would have been difficult to tell Congress that we need millions of dollars to combat 14-year-olds," says Williams.
The first dedicated FBI computer crime squads began in the mid-1990s, says Williams. But there was still more of a focus on violent crime. But as violent crime has dropped and computer crime has risen - as well as the increased value of data - the FBI has devoted more resources to technology.
But with so many demands on the modern agent, the FBI still has difficulties with attracting people with the right mix of skills.
"An agent has to combine investigative skills and technical skills," Williams says. "It's hard to find people in society who can administer UNIX and professionally carry a weapon. And they pay way below market value."
Despite this, Williams says attrition is low. New agents are dedicated to their job, and think the work that they do outweighs more material concerns. The bureau has also had some great recruitment successes, even attracting a former Microsoft employee for their San Francisco bureau.
Still a long way to go
In fact, the agents can be even more knowledgeable than the systems administrators.
"We've walked into victim sites where the victim technical support and consultants have asked FBI agents what to do technically," Williams says. "But, of course, we're not allowed to help in that way."
Williams notes that having such technosavvy agents is essential to performing interrogations of hackers, too.
"The hacking community often has a general view of law enforcement as being incapable of handling these type of crimes," he says. "If you sit down in an interview and start speaking their language and showing evidence, you see an attitude of extreme arrogance turn into fear. But if you use a technical term the wrong way, you lose all legitimacy."
Even with all the media and government attention on computer attacks, Williams says, the FBI computer crimes unit is still woefully underfunded and recruitment remains a constant worry. President Clinton's recent call for tuition breaks for computer science students who agree to serve in a government computer security organization should help the ranks, but it's hard to keep the bureau competitive.
"Some people really enjoy the fact that they work for some government agency," he says. "But if you're just a computer analyst, and you can go make five times as much in the private sector, are you going to work for the government?"
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