Tracking Down the Nasty Guys

NCMEC follows up on tips via IP trace route tool.

In the formative days of organized crime—the Prohibition era of the 1920s—federal agents such as the legendary Eliot Ness knew exactly where to find mob bosses like Al Capone: usually in full-furred and fedora-topped public view, seemingly untouchable. The tougher problem was finding evidence of mob crimes.

Today, in the formative days of Internet-based cyber-crime, that situation is reversed. Evidence of crimes in the form of child porn sites and chat rooms is, unfortunately, all too easy to find online. Tracking down those responsible, given the anonymity of the Web, is the hard part, particularly because operators of sites that exploit children move their content from server to server often to elude law enforcement, experts say.

Now, however, one private, nonprofit organization has found a way to help law enforcement get one step closer to quickly locating the perpetrators of online child sexual exploitation. The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, in Alexandria, Va., has deployed an advanced IP trace route tool—VisualRoute from Visualware Inc.—that allows it, in many cases, to quickly identify the source and even the physical location of servers hosting possibly illegal Web sites.

The tool has helped the organization cope with a steadily rising tide of calls and e-mail messages to its CyberTipline from individuals complaining about sites that seem to exploit children and to quickly turn the most serious over to federal or local law enforcement, often before the bad guys have a chance to run. In fact, officials said, the tool has played a key role in the arrests of hundreds of individuals on child- exploitation-related charges.

"When we get a tip on a site, time is critical," said Kathy Free, program manager of NCMECs exploited-child unit. "Weve been able to enforce a two-day turnaround on leads so that law enforcement has a way to see the evidence and act on it quickly."

The ability to learn more about whos behind a particular Web site or e-mail is not just important to law enforcement and its helpers. Increasingly, enterprises and service providers will want to know more about whos attacking their networks or appropriating their copyrighted material and where they can be found, said Pete Lindstrom, an analyst at Hurwitz Group Inc., in Framingham, Mass. Thats particularly true, Lindstrom said, as the federal government strengthens the ability of law enforcement to monitor and act against online miscreants through legislation such as the USA Patriot Act, passed in October.

For example, service providers such as the Atlanta-based eDeltacom ISP (Internet service provider) division of ITC DeltaCom Inc. are using VisualRoute to track down hackers who attack sites belonging to eDeltacoms hosting clients.