Policing the Internet

By Sullivan, Scott D. | The FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin, June 1999 | Go to article overview

Policing the Internet

Sullivan, Scott D., The FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin

Children grow up hearing the warning "Don't talk to strangers," and as adults, they usually remain wary of people they do not know. Yet, every day, adults and children alike invite strangers into their home. By signing on to the Internet, they give strangers the opportunity to crash their computers, access and misuse personal information, manipulate their finances, and threaten their safety. Moreover, as the Internet grows and becomes more a part of individuals' daily routines, their potential exposure to Internet crime increases.

When computer users connect to the Internet, they link their computers to a server's computer, which, in turn, connects to thousands of other servers. These computers provide the framework of the Internet. As millions of users sign on to their respective servers and transmit and receive bits of information, they create a maze of connections comparable to a web. From this analogy comes the concept of the World Wide Web.

From a criminal's point of view, the Web offers anonymity and a buffer from getting caught, which, in turn, creates an opportunity for the "perfect" crime. Indeed, the Internet has become a breeding ground for crime. Thieves transfer funds from victims' bank accounts to their own. Vandals send computer viruses to destroy computers. Pedophiles exchange child pornography with others or chat with minors, building their trust so they can set up meetings under false pretenses. These offenses represent merely a few of the crimes currently being committed on the Internet. Media headlines such as "The Pirates of the Internet,"(1) "Prosecutors Put Sting into Online Search for Pedophiles,(2) and "Defense Drops Bombshell in Cybersex Case,"(3) serve as evidence of the peril computer users face daily. The perpetrators are men and women from all walks of life. All they need to commit their acts is a computer, an online service, and a victim.

As history has proven, freedom and technological and societal advances usually come with a price. For example, the advent of the automobile offered a new freedom of travel and connected the nation like never before. However, along with these advantages came many new, unforeseen risks and dangers. To address these problems, the government created volumes of laws and regulations and a myriad of commissions and bureaucracies.

Similarly, the popularity of the Internet has spawned online dangers not previously foreseen. While the debate continues on whether new laws and commissions should address Internet crime, law enforcement does not need to wait. Instead, law enforcement agencies can attack new high-tech crimes with familiar, well-established laws.

Combatting Internet Crime

Based on a common belief system, state and federal criminal laws often overlap and complement one another. Accordingly, every state penal code and many federal statutes address most crimes. While crimes differ in name, threshold, or degree of punishment, the culpable behavior remains the same. For example, larceny represents a crime in every criminal code. Accordingly, whether the object of desire is a car, money, or an article of clothing, the theft represents a violation of a larceny statute. But what if the thief steals money from a bank account using the Internet? Vladimir Levin did just that when he used the Internet to access a bank's customers' identification codes and passwords and transfer $10 million dollars to his own accounts.(4)

Although no criminal statute expressly prohibits Internet larceny, the FBI investigated the crime and tracked down Levin. Federal prosecutors for the Southern District of New York indicted him under a criminal statute that long predates the Internet - bank robbery. After an international effort to bring him to justice, Levin was extradited to the United States from Great Britain and pleaded guilty.(5)

When the federal bank robbery statute does not cover Internet larceny, federal prosecutors can choose from an arsenal of applicable criminal statutes. For example, the federal Wire Fraud Act proscribes using the wires to further a fraudulent scheme.(6) This statute applies to most Internet larcenies. Although the interstate nature of Internet crime usually lends itself to federal prosecution, federal prosecutors still may decline to prosecute. When they do, state prosecutors need to take the lead in fighting Internet crime.

Congress has created many laws designed to protect organizations engaged in interstate commerce, and federal law enforcement uses its resources to investigate and prosecute criminals who violate these laws. With the advent of the Internet, federal law enforcement's responsibilities have increased significantly. And, increasingly, the federal government has had to protect itself from cyber criminals. For example, in February 1998, the U.S. Department of Defense admitted that unclassified computer networks had been under attack by cyber hackers. The deputy secretary of defense characterized these recent cyber assaults as "the most organized and systematic attack the Pentagon has seen to date."(7)

As the number and types of crimes committed online and facilitated by the Internet continue to grow, state and local law enforcement must join the fight against cyber crime. Like their federal counterparts, state and local officers can apply their penal codes to prosecute Internet criminals. In some cases, applying these laws to the Internet becomes simply a matter of creative analysis. For example, a crime such as criminal mischief, which prohibits a person from intentionally damaging another person's property,(8) does not specifically address electronic means. Still, online vandals who send individuals viruses that damage their computer hardware or software are guilty of criminal mischief, with the value of the computer or the extent of the damage caused determining the extent of culpability. Just as the law would hold a person responsible for smashing someone's computer with a sledgehammer, it would do the same if someone destroyed a computer with a virus - the equivalent of an electronic sledgehammer.

On the other hand, some laws apply directly to Internet crime. For example, the crime of harassment, in its most basic form, proscribes intentional harassing, annoying, threatening, or alarming behavior,(9) and legislators have provided for increased sentences where the harassment occurs electronically.(10) Although such laws predate the Internet, they can be applied to online harassment. When individuals receive online threats, they can file harassment complaints with the local police. If the threats are serious and credible, the police, if they have Internet capabilities, can investigate the source of the threat and charge the perpetrator with the crime of aggravated harassment. Unfortunately, in jurisdictions where departments are unprepared to handle Internet crime, offenders remain unpunished.

Patrolling the Internet

Officers on the beat do a great deal more than merely make arrests. They take and investigate complaints and reports of suspicious activity, provide public safety information, and act as deterrents against crime. Accordingly, the

Internet needs beat officers. Contrary to the Orwellian image of Big Brother, officers on the Internet would act as the liaison between the online public and the law enforcement agency, policing the Internet in much the same way as they police the streets.

Many law enforcement agencies have recognized the increased responsibility that the Internet has bestowed on them. At the same time, they find that they can use the Internet as a tool for fighting not only Internet crime but other crimes, as well. The law enforcement Web page represents perhaps the best and most common example of this trend. Online users can connect to the Web page to report both Internet and other criminal activity. In turn, law enforcement agencies can post public safety information and communicate with online users. Moreover, law enforcement's visible presence on the Internet enhances public safety awareness and may deter crime.

Internet officers also can use traditional law enforcement tools to conduct Internet crime investigations. Search warrants can serve as an effective means to track down online users. Commercial Internet providers keep records of all online transactions that come through their servers. So, when one user sends an e-mail message to another user, the service provider of each user will have a record of where the e-mail came from and where it was sent. Depending on the law in their states, officers can obtain consent from the sender or the recipient or obtain a warrant or grand jury subpoena to access the records. In one case, both the prosecutor and the defense attorney sought access to e-mail messages to support their arguments. The prosecutor wanted to use the e-mail to help prove that the defendant sexually assaulted a Bernard College student. The defense wanted to use the e-mail to prove consent.(11) In some states, Internet service providers are obligated by law to turn over records to law enforcement upon request or when they become aware of online criminal activity.(12) Either way, Internet officers can rely on a number of methods to track down the perpetrators of illicit Internet activities.

In addition, Internet officers must patrol the Information Superhighway, and a number of agencies are doing just that. Still, according to one source, only federal law enforcement agencies and the New York City Police Department "maintain squads of investigators to ferret out computer crimes."(13) These full-time units investigate and surf the Web for crime 24 hours a day.

Child pornography and pedophilia represent a mere sampling of the crimes that these squads target. In one instance, investigators from the district attorney's office in Westchester County, New York, posed as young teens in online chat rooms. Their interaction with adults led to solicitations and arranged meetings. As a result of this online law enforcement effort, investigators arrested four pedophiles and are investigating more.(14)


Law enforcement is springing into action to fight Internet crime. Federal agencies have set the tone, with the FBI, U.S. Secret Service, and U.S. Customs Service heading the Internet crime-fighting initiative. Many state and local agencies are joining in by implementing Internet programs and giving their personnel online law enforcement training. However, the true effort comes from agencies that have dedicated resources to maintaining online crime-fighting units. They have acknowledged that law enforcement must enter the 21st century as an online force.

The future of the Internet holds many uncertainties. Who, if anyone, will control it, how online users will pay for their access, and to what degree society will incorporate the Internet into everyday life remain unclear. But one thing is certain, Internet crime represents a real and serious threat to the well-being of the public. Ultimately, the extent of the threat posed by Internet crime will be measured by the abilities and successes of the officers charged with combating it.


1 Adam S. Bauman, "The Pirates of the Internet," Los Angeles Times, November 3, 1994, [newspaper online]; available from http://www2.arnes.si/home/piracy.html; Internet; accessed February 24, 1998.

2 Bruce Golding, "Prosecutors Put Sting into Online Search for Pedophiles," The Daily Item (Gannett Suburban Newspapers), April 13, 1998, 1.

3 Ann V. Bollinger, "Defense Drops Bombshell in Cybersex Case," New York Daily News, February 16, 1998, 16.

4 "Internet Robber Sentenced," February 24, 1998, [online article]; available from http://cnnfn.com/digitaljam/9802/24/robber; Internet; accessed February 25, 1998.

5 Ibid. See also United States v. Loney, 959 F.2d 1332 (5th Cir. 1992) (defendants guilty of wire fraud for adding unearned frequent flyer miles to their accounts electronically).6 18 U.S.C [section] 1343.

7 Deputy Secretary of Defense John Hamre, in Associated Press, "Pentagon Computers Targeted by Hackers," February 26, 1998, [newspaper online]; available from http://www.usatoday.com/life/cyber/tech/ctc202.htm; Internet; accessed August 3, 1998.

8 See New York State Penal Law, Section 145.00.

9 See New York State Penal Law, Section 240.25.

10 See New York Penal Law, Section 240.30.

11 Supra note 3.

12 See New York State Penal Law, Section 250.35.

13 Daniel Wise, "Local Agencies Get Tough on Cyber-Crime," New York Law Journal (October 1997): 1.

14 Supra note 2.

Patrolman Scott Sullivan serves with the Westchester County, New York, Police Department and also is an associate with a private law firm in White Plains.

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