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Panel: don't focus funding on crimes but on criminal cybertools

The American Bar Association and several law schools focusing on national security issues brought together a panel of high-level intelligence and law enforcement officials for a discussion in the fall. This was the 23rd Annual Review of the Field of National Security Law and, as a senior writer for the ABA Journal wrote, we ignore the nexus of national security issues and cybercrime at our peril.

The panelists included law enforcement notables, some of whom had spent their careers investigating international drug organizations, and others who had worked more locally. What they had in common was that having seen seemingly ordinary conspiracies turn out to involve organized crime or even terrorists.

For example, the NYPD recently handled a conspiracy that initially appeared to involve the sale of stolen baby formula. After a yearlong, multi-agency investigation, the conspiracy turned out to be tied to a multimillion-dollar cigarette smuggling and money-laundering operation. 16 people were charged with racketeering, several believed to be tied to prominent terrorists. Two were later charged with trying to have a witness against them murdered.

Add computer and Internet sophistication to the equation, the panelists said, and we could begin to see more complex criminal networks develop -- and it won’t be easy to tell if the players are “ordinary” criminals or terrorists. For example, drug trafficking organizations sometimes use malware attacks to hack into the computer systems of shipping companies. Once in, they can change information about the locations and delivery times for containers used to move drugs or perhaps even ensure the containers aren’t flagged for search.

It’s just “easier, safer, cheaper to try to steal money electronically than it is to try to rob a bank or set up a traditional fraud scheme,” said a former senior attorney for the FBI’s national security branch.

Cybercrime and national security issues are likely to be growing closer, the panel confirmed. Unfortunately, law enforcement can be political and reactive -- meaning that funding can be cut from one priority and moved to another whenever a new scare arises.

On the defense side, we know all too well that law enforcement priorities can quickly change when lawmakers adjust their focus. And while want criminal investigators to focus on the most serious threats, it’s also crucial for them not to miss the critical distinction between an ordinary cybercriminal, a member of the mob or a terrorist.

Source: ABA Journal, “Organized crime leaders and terrorists cross paths in cyberspace,” Terry Carter, Jan. 1, 2014

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