Cops Narrow Gap on Web Criminals ; This Week's Arrest of a Teen Hacker Shows That Law Enforcement Is Getting More Savvy

Article excerpt

Computer hackers cruising the Internet these days should check their rearview mirrors. Those flashing lights might not be the modem. They could be the technology police.

With increased manpower, better know-how, and higher-profile cases, law-enforcement agencies from the US to Europe are joining forces to crack down on Internet crime. If savvy teenagers once could drive rings around technologically flat-footed cops, the police are catching up.

And they have a message for today's teens: Internet hacking is no longer a prank; it's a serious crime.

This week's arrest of a Montreal 15-year-old in connection with the wide-ranging attack on Internet sites such as Yahoo! and eBay earlier this year, is only the latest sign of the tougher stance.

While the young hacker made a number of simple blunders that led cybercops to him, the arrest comes at a key time. Just as police are trying to get the word out to teens, older activists are starting to copy their methods in order to launch their own politically motivated Web attacks.

If the trend catches on, the new cybercops may be called on to break up electronic civil disobedience actions much as their predecessors broke up antiwar protests in the Vietnam era.

"There are many motivations" for hacking, says Peter Hussey, executive vice president of Baltimore Technologies, an electronic- security company with US headquarters in Needham, Mass. While many teens do it strictly for the technological challenge, others "actually want to cause financial harm to the targets."

Little is known so far about the motivations for "Mafiaboy," the hacker arrested this week. He's the first person charged in connection with February's attacks. Canadian police have only charged him with hacking CNN. Finding other perpetrators, who covered their tracks better, will be hard.

For many teens, hacking represents the lure of a high-tech joy ride. Many defend their actions, saying they're simply exploring. By finding gaps in company security systems, hackers can teach companies a lot, they add.

"They like to believe that the work that they are doing is performing a service and allowing business to fix [problems]," says Jim Finn, a former hacker and now top executive at Unisys's information-security consulting group in Burlington, Mass.

Hackers make a distinction between their exploration and the willful destruction of "crackers." But with millions of dollars of e- commerce sales at stake, Internet companies take an increasingly dim view of both practices. …