Mashantucket, Conn. - Robert Weaver was barking about the need for increased cooperation between business and law enforcement to choke cyberterrorism when a Connecticut state trooper with a bomb-sniffing dog entered the conference room and walked its perimeter.
"Anything we need to know about?" asked Weaver, special agent in charge at the U.S. Secret Service's New York crimes electronic task force. The trooper shook his head, finished his rounds and left.
Reminders about the heightened state of alert - officially orange - were everywhere yesterday at the annual CyberCrime 2003 conference. Each year hundreds of government computer specialists descend on this northern Connecticut gaming town to talk about everything from tracking down hackers to computer forensics.
It was evident from the moment the conference began, when attendees were told Sunday's two high-level keynote speakers couldn't attend because of heightened security concerns in Washington and New York.
One of them, Jerome Hauer, director of the office of public health preparedness at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, didn't help matters when he shared the latest intelligence via speakerphone. "We've been round the clock here since Thursday," he said. "Intelligence continues to tell us we continue to see an imminent threat to the U.S. These groups are not happy with our potential interest in [war with] Iraq ... Their philosophy is to kill as many of us as they can."
Intelligence from Algerian nationals in Britain indicated Al-Qaida remains "very interested" in poisons, chemical agents and nerve agents and there are concerns about the potential use of a "large explosive device," Hauer said.
More on point for the somber techies, however, was the expectation that a computer-based attack likely would play a role in the war. Hauer said the government has taken note of the computer war that has raged between the Palestinians and Israelis. "The Palestinians tried to do everything they could to undermine Israeli computers," he said, noting the Israelis countered by electronically spreading disinformation about its operations. He expects much of the same in this country. Terrorists are "very interested in getting into our computers to cause economic disruption."
Not surprisingly, the techniques for intrusion are more powerful, more widespread and more insidious than ever.
Jonathan Rusch, special counsel for fraud prevention at the U.S. Department of Justice, said electronic thieves have gone multimedia, devising schemes that involve use of several complementary technologies.
In one such case prosecuted last year, two Russian hackers armed with a database of 50,000 credit card users wrote software that created new e-mail addresses for a battalion of bidders and sellers, who were then programmed to conduct tens of thousands of bogus transactions on a popular auction site.
Payments using the stolen credit card numbers were transferred to an online payment site, where the thieves collected the booty.
On an optimistic note, law enforcement is getting smarter about tracking, prosecuting and sometimes even preventing online treachery.
Lisa Friel, chief of the sex crimes prosecution unit at the Manhattan District Attorney's office, recounted an early misstep in prosecuting Internet-related crime. Police arrested a man accused of raping a woman he'd enticed to New York through an e-mail correspondence. The arrest was made without securing or even observing the e-mail messages, which later revealed that the woman hadn't been truthful.
Now, Friel said, police and prosecutors know the importance of seizing and securing evidence on hard drives early on, how to garner evidence from Internet service providers and how not to tip off a potential offender to the presence of an investigation.