An army of techies waging war on spam

FBI Special Agent J.P. McDonald directs the Philadelphia Regional Computer Forensics Laboratory, which has been involved in high-profile local cases such as the Fort Dix attack plot.
FBI Special Agent J.P. McDonald directs the Philadelphia Regional Computer Forensics Laboratory, which has been involved in high-profile local cases such as the Fort Dix attack plot. (CLEM MURRAY / Staff Photographer)
Posted: May 09, 2011

It's a vast, invisible battle, going on all the time - and, unbeknownst to you, your computer may be one of the battlegrounds.

The struggle pits thousands of smart, evil folks, who send out trillions of pieces of spam e-mail, against the people in law enforcement and business guarding against them and trying to shut them down.

On the front lines against spam and cybercrime, some analyze malicious computer code (malware), and others - in the young science of cyberforensics - examine computers and drives confiscated in investigations.

Spam - hated word - is again in the news. A May 3 FBI alert warned of e-mail carrying purported images or videos of Osama bin Laden. "This will leave you speechless)," the spam says. "See picture of bin laden dead!"

Don't even open it, warned the alert. "This malicious software or malware can embed itself in computers and spread to users' contact lists, thereby infecting the systems of associates, friends, and family members."

Pumped out by networks (botnets) of malware-enslaved personal computers, unwanted e-mail - random junk, ads, porn, viruses, Trojan horses, get-rich-quick offers from Nigerian nobility - makes up most of all e-mail sent in the world. By far. Estimates range around 80 percent - but a 2007 Microsoft security report in October put it at 97 percent. It ranges from crud to criminal. As for malware, the United States has about 2.2 million computers (more than any other country) infected, according to Microsoft numbers (likely to be low).

"I guarantee," says FBI Special Agent Brian Herrick, director of the FBI Cyber Crime Squad in Philadelphia, "that thousands of Inquirer readers probably have computers infected with spam or malware, part of a botnet just pumping out spam."

The cyberthugs have an advantage, says Special Agent Cerena Coughlin, also of the Cyber Crime Squad. "We can stop them for a while, but they always come up with ways to circumvent it. And we're more restricted. We have to follow the letter of the law - they don't."

The extent of it is staggering. Before U.S. marshals took it down in March, the Rustock botnet was pumping out an estimated 30 billion spam e-mails a day. The botnets - big names include ZeuS, SpyEye, Dogma, Koobface, and Alureon - are run by criminal groups that use servers and supercomputers in several countries. Tracing their activity is extremely difficult and calls for highly skilled technical workers.

One of 16 such FBI squads in the country, the Philadelphia Cyber Crime Squad has 15 agents working full-time on cybercrime; the national program began in 1996. Working with national and international agencies, the squad studies and traces viruses, junk, and spam. Cases involve computer intrusions (everything from local hackers to international cyberespionage and terrorism), child exploitation (as in pornography), intellectual-property rights (copyright infringement, movies, music, software, proprietary business secrets), Internet fraud, and identity theft.

Coughlin says, "We are insanely busy. This is the third-busiest squad in the country, because of where it is and all the affected business and government concerns nearby. We don't have enough bodies for all the work there is."

In the Philadelphia area, the FBI joins hands with local businesses such as banks, agribusiness, and utilities (enterprises often attacked by spam and cybercrime) in a group called InfraGard. There are more than 1,400 local members - "So many people want to be part of it that we don't even need to solicit members," Coughlin says.

At monthly meetings, members share information, news, and tips. The FBI gives presentations and talks, and individual members speak about the cases they face. "It's a communication channel," Herrick says, "between the U.S. government and people in industry down in the trenches, looking to protect critical infrastructure."

Current president of the local chapter of InfraGard is Brian Schaeffer, chief information officer of Liberty Bell Bank in Marlton. He says, "I get thousands of cyberattacks a day. A lot of them are idiots just wanting to show what they can do. But a lot of them are looking to access banking information."

Like most banks, Liberty Bell has a strong firewall, "so hackers take a back-door approach," sending bank clients "phishing" e-mails - which pretend to be trustworthy communications but hide nasty intentions. "If a client even opens such an e-mail, they can get into their account information, their contacts, the keys to the kingdom."

Such attacks mean that "not only do I have to defend my own system, but also I try to help the customers with theirs. If their computers get infected, their account and credit information could get sold to strangers, and that could hurt us all." Schaeffer tells of an elderly couple who came to his bank one day, and just by coincidence, a bank clerk brought him a suspicious request "to withdraw a huge amount of money from their account - but there they were, sitting with us, so we knew some hackers had got at their information through e-mail."

He says InfraGard "has given me a network of people I can go to if I see things I never saw before. If I have a question, there's likely to be someone with an answer."

The other side of the battle is cyberforensics. Think of it as CSI with computers. It's happening right now, with the cache of computers, flash drives, and other cyberstuff taken from Osama bin Laden's compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan. U.S. agents instantly began to analyze this precious trove for criminal evidence - and links to other al-Qaeda operatives.

Work much like this goes on in Radnor at the FBI's Regional Computer Forensics Laboratory, one of 16 such labs in the country. As with InfraGard, the flavor is distinctly federal/local. Law enforcement agencies - such as the police departments of Philadelphia, Lancaster, Lower Merion, and Lower Providence - send officers to guest-work at the lab and receive training and experience in fighting computer crime.

Supervisory Special Agent J.P. McDonald directs the lab, which has been involved in some of the highest-profile local investigations of recent years, including the 2007 Fort Dix attack plot, the manhunt for the Coatesville arsonists, the case of former State Sen. Vincent J. Fumo, and the 2007-08 "Bonnie and Clyde" case of Jocelyn Kirsch and Edward Anderton, now in prison for fraud and identity theft.

"You can track the growth of cyberforensics along the same timeline as computers," McDonald says. "The FBI's program began in 1999, and, as of the mid-2000s, cyberevidence now has recognition and a firm track record in courts."

The lab is a techie's paradise, with gadgets and screens galore, racks of digital evidence sealed in antistatic wrap, sophisticated hard-drive readers, radiofrequency-shielded spaces, and kiosks for quick analysis of cell phones and thumb drives. "The majority of what we do," McDonald says, "is analysis of what's in a machine, how it got there, and then making a timeline of the history of what got there when."

"People's electronic devices are really an extension of their thoughts," says Philadelphia Police Lt. Edward Monaghan, deputy director of the lab. "If you're into NASCAR, you're likely to have NASCAR stuff in your computer. Thugs who are into drugs and money like to have their pictures taken with drugs, guns, and money. It sounds dumb, but they love it. That's what cyberevidence is all about."

The FBI's Herrick is resigned to a long battle: "There's probably some high school kid someplace in the Midwest - or maybe Europe or Asia someplace - who's cooking up something nobody's ever seen before. You really have to stay on your game with these guys."


Contact staff writer John Timpane at 215-854-4406, jt@phillynews.com, or at Twitter at @jtimpane.

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