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

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

In addition to helping pinpoint a suspect, the program is useful in helping investigators manage a case where the suspect is already known. It can help determine a suspect's level of intelligence or if he poses a danger to himself of others - information that can prove useful in deciding whether to conduct surveillance on the suspect or raids on his home. It can also measure the anger and anxiety of a suspect over the course of negotiations to give clues about what tactics are working or failing.

In 2000, Michael Bloomberg, the prominent American businessman and politician, received a series of emails threatening to publicly expose serious weaknesses in the computer network of his company unless the sender, a man from Kazakhstan, received $200,000 and a contract for employment. The investigators wanted to lure the suspect to a location where extradition laws would allow him to be arrested.

After extensive negotiations, they succeeded in convincing the suspect, Oleg Zezev, to come to London, where Bloomberg personally met him and got his demands on video tape. In the aftermath of the case, Shaw used WarmTouch to see how the suspect responded to various approaches used at different points in the discussions.

"He was pretty angry, but he still wanted to make a deal," Shaw said "The job was to sooth the anger and anxiety and get him to London. WarmTouch was helpful in tracking how well that was done."

WarmTouch is now regularly used in ongoing cases to gauge how a suspect's state of mind is changing over the course of an investigation, Shaw said.

While WarmTouch has a proven record in helping to track down bad guys, several audience members were worried the technology could be used for more nefarious purposes - for example by repressive governments to obtain the identity of anonymous dissenters.

At the same time, a program like WarmTouch could also be incorporated into anonymization software used by the dissenters themselves while composing anonymous articles to search for and eliminate tell-tale words or phrases that could reveal their identities.

Shaw has no immediate plans to take WarmTouch in such directions, but the software has uses that go beyond forensics. Frequently, he runs the program on emails he's written prior to sending them.

"I actually find when I use it for myself, I develop greater empathy because I find things, particularly in email, that I probably shouldn't say," he explained. "It is like having my very empathetic and sensitive wife reading over my shoulder. It keeps me out of trouble." ®

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