Overcoming Obstacles: Preparing for Computer-Related Crime

Article excerpt

The computer, a jewel of technology, could become the worst enemy of law enforcement agencies across the country. On a daily basis, local law enforcement must deal with a wide assortment of crime situations that, more and more often, involve computers. Local agencies must stay abreast of technology, but in the area of white-collar crime investigations, the computer makes this task difficult.

As explored in the July 1995 FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin article titled "Computer Crime Categories, How Techno-Criminals Operate," computers can intersect with crime in a number of ways. But whether computers are the targets of crime, the instruments of crime incidental to criminal acts, or associated with new versions of traditional crime,(1) the day has come when law enforcement must deal with their presence.


When asked about computer-related crime, most local agency heads say publicly that they do not have such problems in their jurisdictions. But the director of the National White Collar Crime Center asserts that agencies across the country might have very serious problems without realizing it. In fact, it might take years for law enforcement to become proficient in dealing with computer-related crime.(2)

Computer technology has become a significant tool for criminals, just as it has for legitimate private businesses. The head of the Department of Justice's Computer Crime Section predicted a marked increase in the number of computer-literate criminals. In the past, fewer than 10 percent of criminals possessed computer skills; by the year 2000, nearly 90 percent will be computer literate.(3) Such a future presents police and sheriff's departments with serious problems if their investigative staffs are not equipped to handle the technologies used by criminals.

Document trails have been replaced by data trails.(4) A lack of training and proficiency in the use of computer hardware and software handicaps investigators. Even the most basic computer use in a crime or in support of criminal activity can become an obstacle to the investigative process if detectives cannot navigate the computer maze.

Significant evidence might even remain undiscovered without full investigation of computers found at the scene of a crime or at the disposal of the criminal. If an investigator does not enter the system carefully or properly, data (evidence) can be lost.

Law enforcement administrators historically have encountered significant problems finding individuals who possess technical expertise as well as investigative training. There are experienced investigators and there are knowledgeable computer specialists, but rarely does one person command both sets of skills. In fact, one expert estimates that only 25 to 40 people nationwide fit the bill and could manage an investigative unit.(5)

The absence of properly trained investigators represents only one major element of this problem. Computer companies introduce thousands of new products annually, making it a herculean task to stay knowledgeable about computers and the vast world of software. No one can know how to operate every system.

Moreover, no organization, not even a federal agency, could serve as the repository for all the instructions on all software or hardware; the volume simply would be overwhelming. For law enforcement, even iran agency attempted to be prepared by learning how to navigate the more popular programs, how could it predict which products criminals would use? There are just too many popular programs from which to choose.

Where would local agencies go for help in dealing with unfamiliar computer products? Often, they look to the state police for assistance. Several states have established computer crime support units, but these have not developed sufficiently to make a significant dent in the problem. High costs make it virtually impossible to establish a full support capability.(6)

Nor will rescue come from the federal government. …