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Working Group Seeks Ways to Pull Plug on Cybercrime

A group of probation and pretrial services officers is looking at how to supervise offenders and defendants who use our society's pervasive programmable electronic devices to commit or conceal crimes.

"Cybercrime has increased over the course of time, only because computers and other electronic information storage devices have become a daily part of our lives," said Senior Probation Officer Kathleen Horvatits in the Western District of New York. "Twenty years ago, you needed to be technically savvy to use a computer. Today, the average person uses a computer in their daily lives."

Horvatits is a member of the Judiciary's Cybercrime Working Group, fourteen pretrial and probation officers helping to develop national supervision policies in cybercrime offenses. Jonathan Muller, a Supervisory Pretrial Services Officer in New Jersey, and also a member of the working group, has seen how computers can be used to commit crime.

"From the sex offense side, the anonymity of the internet has made it easier to trade images and to make contact with children online," Muller said. "There's definitely more ability to commit identity theft. But a computer or any electronic device also can be used for the storage of records in a drug case or for images of passports and the documents in identity theft."

The incidence of cybercrime increases yearly. In 2002, the FBI's Internet Crime Complaint Center received 75,063 complaints. By 2012, consumer complaints had nearly quadrupled to 289,874.

The number of cases in federal courts involving cybercrime is difficult to estimate because computers or electronic devices may be used to facilitate any number of crimes:  identity theft, child pornography and solicitation, data theft, damage to protected computers, fraudulent online sales, extortion scams, credit/debit card fraud, computer intrusions, and more.

If it's difficult to list all the ways computers can be used to commit or conceal a crime, imagine how hard it is to supervise individuals convicted or accused of cybercrimes. It's not simply a matter of banning an offender's or defendant's computer use. At least two circuits have issued opinions saying such conditions, in certain cases, may be "at the same time potentially too narrow and overly broad."

"One of the goals of our working group is to be able to identify some best practices to share with the field, to give them some direction on how to supervise these offenders and defendants. But conditions of supervision are not necessarily standardized," said Horvatits. "There will be cases where someone's knowledge of technology surpasses our ability to monitor them. Then we may have to convince a judge to prohibit them from using a computer."

There is some urgency to the group's mission. Technology continues to develop in ways that help offenders and defendants elude supervision. Horvatits points to the growing use of the "under net."  "Essentially it's a method of sharing information and transferring files that circumvents the traditional internet," she said.

In bi-weekly telephone conferences, the group is developing a statement of work, and looking at the possibility of contracting nationally for computer monitoring services, in addition to their primary goal of developing national policy and supervision strategies for the supervision and investigation of cybercrime defendants and offenders.

"We're trying to standardize the protocol to ensure that we can identify the most important target areas and direct a contractor to be able to monitor those specific areas – areas that we think are most commonly used to commit cybercrimes or conceal offenses," said Horvatits.

Unlike other specialist positions, whose caseloads are a single type of case, a cybercrime "specialist" will collaborate on any case that may involve technology. The working group is developing language and protocols to create a cybercrime specialist position, so that districts can, if they choose, identify an individual for that position.

"We're also looking at the possibility of shared resources, computer forensics is a perishable skill" said Muller, "and some districts may not have the time, the resources or the expertise for the level of  training required to maintain those skills. We have a small group looking at developing training modules and we're hoping to build a partnership with the FBI and their regional computer forensic labs. The districts don't necessarily have the resources to do the forensic side of cybercrime themselves."

"We have a lot of goals to achieve," said Horvatits. "It's a huge thing to address because there are no pre-existing policies or supervision strategies, other than traditional strategies. We're not redefining, we're creating new definitions."

Related Topics: Probation and Pretrial Services