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Patrolling Cyberspace

By Megan Kinneyn | Aug. 2, 2007

Law Office Management

Aug. 2, 2007

Patrolling Cyberspace

With billions of Web pages to monitor, law enforcement agencies are looking to cyber-citizens to help catch e-criminals. By Susan E. Davis

By Susan E. Davis
      Edited by Jeanette Borzo

      Growing ranks of online citizens help guard the Net.
      With billions of pages of Internet real estate to patrol, district attorneys and anticrime groups are increasingly using citizens as the online eyes and ears of law enforcement.
      This spring, for example, the Los Angeles district attorney could hardly have been expected to happen upon photos of an East Los Angeles College student dressed in combat fatigues, brandishing assault weapons, and making comments about killing people. Posted on MySpace, a popular online social network, the images could be easily overlooked among more than 100 million user profiles. But a fellow student noticed Matthew Arthur Corwin's postings and phoned in a tip to the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department. In April, Corwin was arrested at his grandmother's house, and the DA brought felony weapons charges against the 23-year-old.
      Such tip-offs?think of them as a 21st-century version of a neighborhood-watch program?are on the rise. For example, the Internet Crime Complaint Center (IC3), a joint effort by the FBI and the National White Collar Crime Center, has seen a jump of more than 400 percent in citizen reportings to its website over the past five years. In part because of this increase in the volume of tips, "the IC3 is in the process of enhancing a robust system that will automate the processing of complaints," says its chief, John Hambrick, a supervisory special agent for the FBI.
      Such leads are also turning out to be vital in keeping the Web's virtual streets clear of ever-evolving cybercrime, which ranges from online stalking to identity theft to child pornography. In fact, the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC) relies entirely on tips reported to its "CyberTipline," doing no "proactive" work, says Jennifer Lee, an NCMEC program manager. "We get about 50 percent of our tips from citizens and 50 percent from Internet service providers," which are required by law to report any child porn found on their servers. "We've seen a 139 percent rise in reports of online solicitation of minors in the last year alone," Lee adds.
      Much of this cyber-surveillance, of course, builds on the nature of the Internet itself, in which online communities police themselves. The popular online classifieds site Craigslist, for example, lets its tens of millions of users "flag" posts that are suspicious or inappropriate. Once a post gets enough flags, Craigslist takes it down. MySpace asks that users report harassment, hate speech, and inappropriate content. It also works closely with the authorities, maintaining round-the-clock phone and email hotlines for law enforcement to use.
      But as with the gun-toting Corwin, sometimes the perpetrators themselves smooth the path to their own arrest. "Suspects often will boast of their crimes on their own MySpace pages," says Donna Hollingsworth, the L.A. deputy district attorney who worked on Corwin's case. "They don't realize that just about anybody can see that information."

Megan Kinneyn

Daily Journal Staff Writer

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