Criminals are a notoriously crafty and unscrupulous lot, taking any advantage where it may lie. The Internet, in part due to its perceived anonymity, has been a breeding ground for the underhanded techniques used by cyber criminals to separate a fool from his money, spread hate literature and exploit children. But today the balance is shifting as more and more police agencies are taking the threats seriously and beefing up the cyber crime response teams. Call them geeks with guns.
Because of the way the Internet is structured, under normal circumstances no one knows where anyone is. A dot-com can be in Pretoria or Peoria and a site visitor is none the wiser. A Web site disseminating hate literature or child pornography could be in Saratoga or Saratov. Without the means of locating the site server, there is no way to apprehend criminals. It is far beyond a needle in a haystack, more like a specific grain of sand in the Sahara. Thus, it is important for police to be able to find out where a site is located in order to start the legal ball rolling against criminal activity. Once you have found the server, it is generally much easier to find the person breaking the law.
"We need to know the actual physical location of the server," said detective Dave Johnston.
"We'll get a warrant if it is occurring in Edmonton, if not then we will deal with another agency in that particular jurisdiction," said his partner Ron Scholes of the Edmonton Police Services technological crimes unit in Edmonton.
The key to success is software which allows police to trace back the geographical location of a threatening e-mail message, dishonest e-commerce Web site or a site disseminating illegal information such as hate literature or child pornography.
"Basically it combines the Internet tools of ping, trace route and who is into an integrated package with a graphical interface," said Julie Lancaster director of marketing for tracer software manufacturer Visualware Inc., in Centreville, Va.
"Usually things like ping are run from a command prompt and [it is] hard to discern the information since it is a bunch of numbers," she said. "So Visualroute packages that information into a presentation that is easy to read."
The company has created a process to identify the geographical location of many routers and Web servers worldwide
"It will tell you the city, state and country of where the routers are located and plot that information on a world map," she explained. So if police are apprised of a threatening e-mail or child porn site they can trace it back to the ISP that served up the information.
For detectives Johnston and Scholes, there have been some real success stories. About a year ago a young man was on an electronic bulletin board site in the U.S. threatening to blow up his school. Without tracer software there would have been no chance of apprehending the individual before he acted.