Feds square off with organized cyber crime

Those were the days

RSA 2005 Computer intruders are learning to play well with others, and that's bad news for the Internet, according to a panel of law enforcement officials and legal experts speaking at the RSA Conference in San Francisco last week.

Christopher Painter, deputy director of the Justice Department's computer crime section, spoke almost nostalgically of the days when hackers acted "primarily out of intellectual curiosity." Today, he says, cyber outlaws and serious fraud artists are increasingly working in concert, or are one and the same. "What we've seen recently is a coming together of these two groups," said Painter.

Ronald Plesco, counsel to the National Cyber-Forensics and Training Alliance, a computer forensics organization established by the FBI and private industry, agreed, and pointed to the trend in recent years of spammers building networks of compromised computers to launder their fraudulent email offerings.

Tim Rosenberg, a research professor at the George Washington University, warned of "multinational groups of hackers backed by organized crime" and showing the sophistication of prohibition-era mobsters.

"This is not about little Jimmy Smith breaking into his ex-employer's website and selling information to competitors," he said. "What we're seeing is just sheer, monstrous" levels of crime."

Painter acknowledged that recreational hackers are still out there, but he believes they're a minority. He reads the future of cyber crime and investigation in the joint Secret Service and Justice Department "Operation Firewall" crackdown on Internet fraud rings last October, in which 19 men were indicted for allegedly trafficking in stolen identity information and documents, and stolen credit and debit card numbers.

At the center of Operation Firewall was an online forum called Shadowcrew, which served as the trading floor for an underground economy capable of providing a dizzying array of illicit products and services, from credit card numbers to details on consumers worthy of having their identities' stolen. "Individuals all over the world would work together to hack into systems, steal information and then sell information," said Painter. "[It was] a very, very highly structured, organized network."

Faced with that kind of organization, law enforcement agencies are turning to undercover operations, said Painter. To take down Shadowcrew, the Secret Service secretly busted a high level member of the group, turned him into an informant, and operated him undercover for more than a year, according to court records. "Law enforcement was essentially running that group at one point," said Painter.

Painter prosecuted Kevin Mitnick in the 1990s, and he still insists that, from the victim's point of view, old-fashioned recreational hackers are as bad as today's multi-disciplined cyber criminals. "But it was a simpler time," he admitted after the presentation. ®

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