Federal computer lab to help fight hackers; Investigators will be trained to search PCs, devices for evidence


Escalating its war against computer hackers and other technically savvy criminals, the Defense Department yesterday unveiled a $15 million computer laboratory and training center for electronics detectives in Linthicum.

One of only four Defense Department laboratories of its kind in the nation, the center will be staffed by investigators trained to sift through personal computers and other high-tech devices for digital evidence in counterintelligence, criminal and fraud cases.

Investigators will also analyze military computer networks for areas containing sensitive information that might be vulnerable to hackers.

Cyberspace "is a new, wild, lawless, rapidly evolving frontier," said Christopher Mellon, a deputy assistant Defense secretary.

"We have important national interests, and we have to be able to function."

The new laboratory, in a nondescript industrial park, opens as the government is scrambling to strengthen its defenses against teen-age hackers and more sophisticated electronic attacks.

Several high-profile federal government Web sites have been vandalized in recent months, including those of the White House, Army, Senate and FBI. In some cases, hackers entered obscene photos and graffiti, forcing several agencies to shut down their sites for days.

The General Accounting Office issued a report last month criticizing the Defense Department for lax security on its computer systems.

The center will also serve as a school to teach the military how to conduct computer investigations -- expertise in short supply even as digital evidence becomes more common in uncovering crime and prosecuting white-collar criminals.

Investigators say they're just as likely to find floppy disks, PalmPilots and iMacs at a crime scene as bullets and bodies. But recovering digital evidence can be tricky.

"There is a crushing need" for well-trained investigators, said Greg Redfern, director of the new Computer Investigations Training Program.

Most of the lab's efforts will be devoted to "computer forensics," the art of extracting evidence from digital media and preserving it for evidence in court.

On a tour of the building, investigators demonstrated some of the ways criminals attempt to destroy the hard drives on their computers to cover their tracks.

"We get them in pieces, wadded up, burnt, melted, with Coke stains -- you name it," said forensic examiner Dave Lang.

Lang said it can take as long as a month to extract data that may be spread out in hundreds of locations on a sabotaged disk. "It's basically a jigsaw puzzle."

The information that investigators uncover can make or break a case, said David Ferguson, director of the Department of Defense Computer Forensics Laboratory.

In one suspicious death, investigators found what turned out to be a suicide note on the victim's computer. Drug dealers and other criminals often keep detailed records in spreadsheets and electronic appointment books, just like legitimate businessmen, Ferguson added.

Redford said the center is expected to train as many as 750 investigators each year.

The Air Force Office of Special Investigations will oversee the center and its staff of 80 military and civilian personnel.

Air Force officials said this is the first computer crime center to pool expertise from all branches of the military. The FBI has opened a satellite computer lab in the building, and the Air Force is encouraging other agencies to do the same.

Pub Date: 9/25/99

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