Web Gumshoes

Texas has a new crime bureau. Its mission: Catch cybercrooks.

When former Fort Worth cop Mike Marshall had to requalify to carry a gun last year, the firing range officials asked him about his choice of weapon. "I told them," he says, "a Pentium III laptop with 256 megabytes of RAM and a twenty-gigabyte hard drive."Marshall once again carries a gun and a badge, but his real tools are in fact high-powered networked computers. He's the chief investigator for the Texas attorney general's new Internet Bureau, whose mission is to help fight cybercrime in Texas, including consumer fraud, hacker break-ins, and online child exploitation. The new effort was launched in September 2000 with funding from an $800,000 grant awarded through the governor's office. "The Internet Bureau is now a permanent part of the attorney general's office," says Texas attorney general John Cornyn, "and it's something we expect to grow."

The new chief of the Internet Bureau is former Dallas assistant U.S. attorney Reid Wittliff, who led federal prosecutions for hacking, fraud, economic espionage, and other high-tech cases in North Texas. He has worked with both the FBI's Computer Analysis Response Team and the North Texas Regional Computer Forensics Laboratory in Dallas.

Marshall, his lead investigator, started his career as a police officer in Fort Worth, then worked for Microsoft in the nineties as a project leader in information technology in Dallas. While he was there, he persuaded Microsoft to donate a customized, computerized case-management system to the Dallas Police Department. "The system has helped streamline a lot of the casework of the Dallas Police Department," says Marshall, "and, in one early case, helped resolve the kidnapping of a teenage girl."

That led to Marshall's involvement in a large-scale North Texas cybercrime investigation. Law enforcement officials asked Microsoft for technical help when they began investigating a complex child pornography operation in Fort Worth. This became known as the Landslide case, after the name of a Texas business that was involved with online pornography. The two principals of the company were convicted in December by a Fort Worth jury. It was the largest child porn case in the history of the U.S. district court in Fort Worth and involved about 45 federal agents. Marshall went on the raid of the business.

The Internet Bureau will have at its disposal a variety of crime-fighting weapons. First, Wittliff has the unusual ability to prosecute cases in two jurisdictions. He has an arrangement with the Justice Department that lets him prosecute cases in federal court, and he and other attorneys on his staff can be called in by local prosecutors. This will help solve the big problem of chasing criminals in the boundary-free territory of cyberspace.

One of the more potent tools the bureau will have is a presence on the Internet itself. Marshall and his technical staff will be undercover in cyberspace, looking for pedophiles, hackers, con artists, identity thieves, and other online offenders. A bank of Dell computers is hooked to a videotaping system that will record evidence for use in court. However, Wittliff and Marshall say that digital evidence is only part of a case. "If the computer evidence is all you've got, you've got a problem," says Marshall. Wittliff agrees, adding, "Typically the digital evidence is what we use to get started on the story of a crime. It's not the whole case."

Cybercrime is a hot new field and one of increasing controversy because of the difficulty in balancing law enforcement with individual rights and privacy. Moreover, the tools available to both cops and crooks are new and constantly evolving. That is likely to push the Internet Bureau to the cutting edge not only of technology but also of the law itself. Lots of people are going to be watching Wittliff and Marshall closely.

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