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How an app called WarmTouch nailed a grenade-stockpiling cyber extortionist

Software that knows if you're mad - or a loner

The essential guide to IT transformation

When the president of a prestigious patent and trademarking firm began receiving emails threatening to bring down its operations unless he paid a $17m ransom, he knew he had to take action. He reported the incident to the Federal Bureau of Investigation, but agents were unable to identify the culprit.

So he retained the services of Stroz Friedberg, a private investigations firm that used a ground-breaking piece of software that helped zero in on the suspect by closely analyzing his emails. By applying an algorithm that analyzes the word choice and other characteristics of his writing, the program helped analyst Eric Shaw develop a hypothesis that the suspect was a technically adept man older than 30 who had trouble fitting in at work and in social situations. Building off those findings, Shaw later surmised that he might also own a stockpile of weapons.

The profile was remarkably accurate. Myron Tereshchuk, the man who pleaded guilty to criminal extortion in the case, was 43 years-old, and when police raided his suburban home in Maryland, they found ingredients for the deadly poison ricin and a stockpile of parts for making improvised grenades. He had applied for a job with the firm, known as MicroPatent, but had been turned down.

Tereshchuk was brought down with the help of a software application known as WarmTouch, which was developed by Shaw, a clinical psychologist who got his start profiling terrorists and foreign leaders for the Central Intelligence Agency. Its job is to sift through written communications to arrive at a profile of the author that helps bring the suspect alive in the minds of investigators and potential witnesses. That, in turn, enables them to apply the profile to a list of known suspects to see if there is a match.

WarmTouch uses a scoring system to guess at a suspect's psychological characteristics. An overuse of the word "me," for instance, might suggest an exaggerated sense of passivity, an indication the person may feel like a victim. The program can sniff out other clues about the individual, such as whether he is more of a loner (as evidenced by frequent use of the word "I") or more of a team player (indicated by using "we" instead). The program also pays close attention to rhetorical questions, which are said to be a strong indicator of anger.

WarmTouch, which Shaw discussed during last week's CanSecWest conference in Vancouver, is particularly useful in cases like the one involving MicroPatent, where the suspect is believed to be an insider.

"They feel provoked," Shaw said in an interview. "They feel victimized. It's like they're going down a corridor and their options get narrower and narrower and narrower and they feel they have no choice because of what's being done to them."

The essential guide to IT transformation

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