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Police Tracking Criminals in Cyperspace

Technology: Some Internet providers open users' private files to investigators.


LEESBURG, Va. — An old black ledger with gold trim, its tidy columns written in ink, sits in Loudoun County's 19th century brick courthouse by a street corner that people tend to cross only when the light tells them to go.

The book looks like some journal on criminal justice past. But it speaks to the future.

Containing a list of search warrants being sought by police across the nation, it is a catalog of sorts, pointing to pedophiles, harassers, stalkers, terrorists, murderers--and the high-tech means being used to catch them.

Armed with those warrants, police visit the nearby headquarters of America Online and retrieve information that people online never dreamed would end up in the hands of the law.

Private e-mail between lovers. The threatening missives of haters. The true identities of people hiding behind screen names in a medium they thought was the essence of secrecy.

"I know who you are and where you live," an anonymous hatemonger e-mailed a 12-year-old girl in Lancaster, Pa. By peeking into the accounts of Internet providers, police can often say the same thing: They will know who the threatening people are and where they live.

"Ultimately, if you break the law, it can be traced," said Ron Horack, point man for AOL-related investigations at the county Sheriff's Department.

Go for a walk, drive a car or spin circles in the moonlight and, chances are, no one notices. Take a journey on the Internet and a trail is left. Police are hot on that trail in a growing number of criminal investigations.

With an approved warrant, they can look at the electronic mail and other online communications of people suspected of a range of serious crimes, getting information not just from a home computer but often the company that provides the Internet, e-mail or chat service.

They can do the same with victims, in the process seeing mail from people who corresponded with them but had nothing to do with a crime. Everything from humdrum to-do lists to love letters from illicit digital dalliances becomes potential evidence, and eventually a matter of public record.

"It is a growing risk to privacy," said Marc Rotenberg, executive director of the Electronic Privacy Information Center, who added that police should stick to traditional methods such as stings, informants and forensic evidence, which don't invade people's communications. Said Horack: "If they're going to use the Internet for their crime, we're going to use the Internet to catch them."


Decatur, Ala., police have been tight-lipped about their investigation of the March 12 killing of Karen Croft Tipton, 39, wife of a prominent local psychiatrist, who was stabbed to death in her home.

But in their affidavit at the Virginia courthouse, they disclosed that she was using her computer when attacked and was still signed on to AOL when her body was discovered. Their warrant sought access to her e-mail, the content of her "buddy list"--a more immediate way for people on AOL to communicate--and other information related to her screen names and those of her husband.

Information was retrieved, put on a computer disk and sent with some documents to Decatur police. So far no arrest has been made.


Authorities turned to AOL to see some of the online activities of the two high school students who killed 13 people and themselves in Littleton, Colo. They've used it to try to track down some of the copycat threats that have closed many schools since.

They took the same route, with so far inconclusive results, after a woman in Pennsylvania was told in a chat room, "I guarantee you I will hurt you if you don't listen to me." And when a man in New York was charged with attempted murder of his wife, who, police say, was having a passionate online encounter that her husband happened to see.

"AOL is extremely law-enforcement friendly," Horack said. "They don't hold anything back."

America Online, the world's largest Internet service provider, or ISP, tells its nearly 18 million customers that it won't read or disclose private communication or personal identifying information except under a "valid legal process."

Other major service providers, as well as separate online e-mail services and Internet hubs like Hotmail and Yahoo, say much the same, although the disclaimers may be hard to find in screens of small print.

"We have a long-standing policy of cooperation with law enforcement," said AOL spokesman Rich D'Amato.

Communications such as e-mail are disclosed only in criminal investigations and with a warrant, he said. In response to orders in civil cases, AOL may give out information allowing someone's real name to be matched to a screen name.

So if a spouse is found to be having an online affair with someone known only as Heart4U, the identity of that cyberlover might eventually be uncovered in a divorce proceeding.

Raytheon Inc. obtained subpoenas to identify 21 people, most of them employees, said to have been spreading corporate secrets and gripes in an anonymous online chat room.

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