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Legal system gears up for computer crime cases

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With computer crimes expected to increase in both frequency and destructive power, the legal system will have to beef up its technical savvy to deal with the coming onslaught, according to industry and legal watchers.

Criminal investigators and prosecutors say the Tim Lloyd case is just the tip of the iceberg, calling computer attacks the crime of the future. That means law enforcement agents, lawyers and judges increasingly will be bombarded with technical issues - whether they be related to corporate sabotage, destructive viruses or hacker attacks.

The Omega files, our main feature
G-men target e-crime
How to protect your network
The Tim Lloyd saga

In whatever form the crime is packaged, the result will be the same - the legal system will have to learn a whole new language, understand technology as well as organized crime or tax law, and possibly even rethink the way it deals with jurors.

"Technology is creeping into the courtroom," says Assistant U.S. Attorney V. Grady O'Malley, who prosecuted Lloyd. "Clearly, this was a test run… It tells people that we're capable. These people are no longer invulnerable. It shows that we can track down the evidence, understand it and logically present it to a jury."

And while O'Malley was able to put together a case and make the jury understand the technical details and nuances, it wasn't an easy task.

"I had to go from zero to 60," says O'Malley. "I had to be force fed. Even if I had computers as a hobby of mine, it still would have been a learning curve. I don't think too many people have an idea of NetWare and how data is stored."

Many people in the legal system are looking at the same kind of ramp up, according to industry analysts, who say the Lloyd case was simply the first one to spill out of Pandora's Box.

"This shows that the legal side is starting to catch up with the abilities of the [techies]," says Pete Hammes, director of engineering for Alexandria, Va.-based ParaProtect Services, Inc. and a former information security technician for the U.S. Department of Defense. "I think this will be another type of specialization within the law community. Now there will be more focus on technical law. There's a tremendous amount of skill and specialization to be able to understand the law and technical issues, as well."

And understanding the technical issues isn't enough.

Attorneys need to understand it well enough to explain it to a jury, which is made up of people with a varying range of technical knowledge.

"You're going to have to be more attuned to the types of jurors you're getting in these cases," notes O'Malley. "The issue here is that every walk of life is touched by computers. It's a part of life now… If I'm going to have a jury with computer literate people, I'm going to try [the case] one way. If I have a jury of people inexperienced with computers, that will be different. You'll have to find out the nature and extent of their computer literacy."

Greg Olson, director of World Wide Data Recovery Services for Eden Prairie, Minn.-based Ontrack Data International, Inc. and the expert witness for the prosecution in the Lloyd case, was responsible for explaining to the jury how Novell, Inc.'s NetWare operating system functions and how it stores data. Not a simple subject.

"Everyone understands a gun," says Olson, who says he practiced his technical explanations for days in front of Ontrack's non-technical managers. "Not everyone understands the technology. My main goal was to make sure the jury understands what I'm talking about… The pressure was all on me. It could quickly get confusing."

But the fact that the prosecution won its computer sabotage case last month sends out a good message, according to Ed Lugo, a special agent in the U.S. Secret Service's Electronic Crimes Branch.

"We are available. We can do it," says Lugo. "We can gather the evidence and show the jury how this happened. We can do that. The gate is open now."

Related links

The Omega files
Our main feature story.

G-men target e-crime
The Tim Lloyd computer sabotage trial may be the first of its kind, but agents at the U.S. Secret Service expect it won't be the last.

How to protect your network
Here 's a list of tips culled from industry analysts, security experts, corporate executives and agents of the U.S. Secret Service.

The Tim Lloyd saga
Timeline of events.

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