WASHINGTON — Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano got a firsthand look Tuesday at how her agency, which defends the nation's physical borders, also guards a volatile virtual frontier: cyberspace.
Napolitano visited the Cyber Crimes Center, which is operated by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement in a discreet office building in suburban Virginia. Known as C3, the 12-year-old unit has a staff of 35 who use their computer expertise to assist investigations of complex international crimes, especially those that victimize children.
"Cyber can be awfully abstract, but the Internet has become the new medium by which crimes are committed -- child pornography, sex tourism, exploitation," Napolitano said.
The visit was part of Napolitano's effort to promote her department's designation of October as Cybersecurity Awareness Month. The Homeland Security Department has been working to boost resources and expertise in response to a surge in Internet crime.
The department has recruited experts from the private sector and announced the hiring of 1,000 people. But turnover has been a problem. Some officials have returned to the private sector, citing frustration with fighting among the Homeland Security Department and other law enforcement agencies over leadership of cyber-security efforts.
On Tuesday, officials gave a stark demonstration of the rampant predatory activity on the Internet.
Special Investigator Mike Jedrey of the Virginia State Police, posing as a 14-year-old girl in an online chat site, engaged in a real-time conversation with a suspect. Some of the top law enforcement officials in the nation were watching as the suspect made inappropriate, sexually suggestive comments. The chat was projected on a large screen.
"This guy has a problem," Jedrey told the visitors. "He knows I'm 14, but he's trying to convince me of sexual things."
Although officials use such undercover work to gather evidence against online predators, they intervene if they feel the situation requires urgent action, in the U.S. or abroad.
"If a child is in danger, we have the ability to call [authorities] and say we have something hot here," said Claude Davenport, who works in a section that combats child exploitation. "We have been able to rescue a child in a day."
Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE, also deploys special teams overseas to track down Americans identified as sex tourists who prey on minors in places such as Cambodia and the Philippines, officials said.
"The beauty of this center is that it is not limited by physical boundaries," said John Morton, Homeland Security assistant secretary in charge of ICE.
The center targets other crimes as well, including money laundering, arms trafficking and fraud.
During her visit, Napolitano saw a piece of heavy artillery -- a decryption silo. Used to break passwords and overcome encrypted defenses used by online criminals, the silo consists of servers connected to Play Station 3s.
It turns out the popular computer game platforms have an impressive capacity for mathematical calculations and generating numbers, which makes them cost-efficient password-breakers.
"So if Congress asks why we're buying Play Stations . . . ," Napolitano joked.
"We had to convince them it wasn't to play games," said Christopher Landi, the chief of the center's forensics section.