The National Catholic Review

Looking over the shoulder of the police detective at his computer monitor, I felt my stomach churn. He was posing as a 14-year-old girl in a chat room. Within moments, a strange man, age 42, was making a proposition. With so many positive media reports focused on the miracles of the Internet as a communication and education tool, the convenience and profits of e-commerce and the spectacular but now fading boom in dot-com stocks, little attention has been paid to the dark side of the Internet and its impact on society’s ability to fight crime. Unfortunately, although the Internet is unquestionably a marvelous tool for good, the widespread use of computers and the Internet has created new challenges for law enforcement while simultaneously offering advantages to criminals.

Computers and the Internet are commonly being used in criminal activities in three ways. First, computers are repositories of stored digital evidence. From home computers to laptops to wireless cell phones and Web-enabled Palm Pilots, computers are rich in electronic records: e-mail communications, financial records, telephone numbers, logs of Web-surfing activity—the very same kind of information one might find in an old-fashioned filing cabinet. Second, computers are used by criminals as tools to commit traditional crimes, as in Internet fraud (online auction failure-to-deliver fraud is skyrocketing), child solicitation and child pornography distribution, sale of contraband, threats and harassment. Third, computers, and sometimes entire networks, are made the targets of criminal conduct. Examples include hacking, theft of information, virus launching and denial of service attacks.

A central advantage the Internet offers to those disposed to sociopathic behaviors is that it creates the possibility for the first time for such individuals to find one another, to congregate in online communities, to share ideas and to provide one another with the potent benefit of group reinforcement for their antisocial attitudes.

Take the example of child sexual predators. Such offenders always existed in the real world and victimized children when they found the opportunity. Because pedophilia is shunned and criminalized by organized society, however, child predators felt the strong constraints of social norms preventing them from acting out their criminal intentions, and they would rarely risk the attempt to find like-minded cohorts. The Internet has made it possible for predators to find entire online fraternities of pedophiles with which to share experiences, to transmit child pornography instantly and anonymously to one another and experience the comfort of a reassuring support group. Worse yet, modern encryption technology also makes it possible for all these transmissions to be hidden in virtually unbreakable code.

Unfortunately, the example of the child predator is only one of many. Because the Internet is as broad as the human psyche, it naturally encompasses all of the darkest manifestations of evil imaginable: every form of denigration of human dignity and antisocial behavior, from racial hatred and white supremacist ideology, to self-mutilation, torture and sado-masochism, to virulent misogynism, to violent extremism and Satanism. Web sites and chat rooms dedicated to glorifying such behaviors—as well as more mundane unlawful conduct such as hacking, credit card fraud, tax evasion and the manufacture of illegal drugs and explosives—are easily located by entering simple search terms into any Internet search engine. And once inside such sites, one finds more and more of them by clicking on hyperlinks within them, in a seemingly endless downward spiral. Just as the pedophile can now find his “niche” on the Net, so can the credit card fraudster, the frustrated neo-Nazi or the suicide-minded teenager, as we saw so tragically in the case of the Columbine high school killings.

It is impossible to assess the impact that the availability of new “cyber-support groups for antisocial behavior” will have on the ability of society to respond to crime. But there is no question that this new reality is a “net positive” for the bad guys that did not exist prior to the advent of the Internet.

Two other strategic advantages the Internet offers criminals are its almost limitless pool of victims and its veil of anonymity. Fraud artists seeking to victimize investors or persuade consumers to send money in advance for nonexistent goods can reach a vast number of possible victims cheaply and effectively through the Internet without ever risking any personal contact or identification. Not only can criminals use the Internet to prey on a worldwide community, they can also do so with comparatively greater anonymity than they have in the real world. This is true because it is possible for a criminal to use false information when registering his Web site or his free e-mail account, to forge e-mail headers to obscure his identity, to use “anonymizer” services that purposely hide a user’s identifying information, or for a hacker to connect through numerous systems—including some in foreign countries—before eventually launching his attack on a victim.

Police at a Disadvantage

In addition to granting these advantages to criminals, the Internet also raises the bar for law enforcement, making investigations harder than they were before there was cyberspace. Internet crime, though local in its impact on victims, is national and even worldwide in its scope. Thanks to the networked world, for example, it is more and more likely that electronically stored records—such as e-mail files that are being sought by authorities in connection with an investigation—will be physically stored outside the local jurisdiction on an e-mail server half a continent away. This means that local prosecutors may need to serve subpoenas on service providers throughout the nation. The legal enforceability of such investigative subpoenas is not entirely clear, and may require seeking the assistance of authorities in another state. Similarly, if search warrants from one state need to be executed in another jurisdiction, it may mean that investigators must either travel to the other state and participate in the search, or depend on their sister law enforcement agencies for assistance. The latter likewise might extend to requiring the other jurisdiction’s officers to travel to the prosecuting state to provide testimony.

These cases are harder and more costly to investigate. If an Internet scam artist is caught in his home jurisdiction, it is likely that there may be only a few victims located in that same state, though there may be hundreds of others scattered across the country. To establish the full scope of the crime, officials of the county where the defendant is located may need to spend money to transport numerous out-of-state witnesses to testify so that the whole story can be revealed. The high cost of handling prosecutions with victims in multiple jurisdictions is another strategic disadvantage faced by law enforcement in the networked world.

The main practical challenge this new kind of criminal activity creates is the need for training for both investigators and prosecutors so that they will be able to handle these new high-tech cases. Catching cybercriminals requires well trained and better equipped cybercops, and this is an expensive proposition, but it is one that the Internet revolution has laid at society’s doorstep. Dealing with this practical need, the delivery of training and equipment to law enforcement officers and prosecutors, will require a continuing commitment by society. Whether such a commitment will be made, however, remains to be seen. Perhaps policymakers and the public will be more willing to allocate such resources when they consider some of the negative strategic consequences that the criminal usage of the Internet presents.

Because the general public’s use of this technology is barely 10 years old, the full extent of the Internet’s impact on society’s ability to cope with crime is still a matter of speculation. Certainly the Internet’s phenomenal benefits to society in terms of information availability, convenient e-commerce and increased communication must be factored positively into any assessment. But as things stand at the start of the 21st century, law enforcement has some serious catching up to do, and policymakers will need to commit significant resources in order to ensure that there is a sheriff on the electronic frontier.

Terrence Berg is an assistant attorney general and chief of the High Tech Crime Unit of the Michigan Department of the Attorney General. The views expressed here are his own and should not necessarily be attributed to the Michigan Department of the