To catch crooks in cyberspace, FBI goes global
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ANKARA, Turkey -- On Aug. 16, 2005, a CNN television news bulletin alerted viewers that computers at the network's New York and Atlanta offices were infected with a new virus called Zotob. Soon, U.S. companies from coast to coast were hit.
Halfway around the world, two young computer hackers in Turkey and Morocco got spooked by the ensuing media coverage, but mocked the ability of authorities to track them down. "They can't find me," wrote Atilla Ekici, a 23-year-old Turk, in an email to his accomplice, a 19-year-old Moroccan called Farid Essebar. "Ha, ha, ha," replied Mr. Essebar.
The U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation, however, was already hot on their trail. The 98-year-old FBI, which has traditionally focused on domestic crime, is extending its reach beyond U.S. borders and boosting cooperation with other law-enforcement agencies in pursuit of cybercriminals, much as the agency has done in tracking down terrorists overseas.
The shift reflects the global nature of computer crimes, which include unleashing viruses, worms and other rogue programs onto victims' computers to disrupt them or steal information. As electronic borders between countries blur, hackers in one nation can easily commit crimes against individuals, corporations and governments on the other side of the world.
The FBI now ranks cybercrime as its third priority behind terrorism and espionage. Computer-based crimes caused $14.2 billion in damages to businesses around the globe in 2005, including the cost of repairing systems and lost business, estimates Irvine, Calif., research firm Computer Economics.
Building relationships with police in other countries is "the only way we are going to effectively get a handle on the problem," says Christopher Painter, deputy chief of the Justice Department's Computer Crime Section.
The FBI is running into limits fighting international computer crime. Cybercrooks remain difficult to pinpoint in part because hackers can hide their tracks by commandeering computers from afar and routing their activities through machines dotted around the world.
Even when the agency does find suspects overseas, local authorities sometimes lack the resources or laws to prosecute. In its pursuit of LoveBug, one of the first big international computer viruses, which spread around the world in 2000, the FBI located its creator in the Philippines. But he was never charged because local laws didn't specify the virus writer's activities as illegal at the time.
"The criminal community is winning," says Nicholas Ianelli, a security analyst at the CERT Coordination Center at Carnegie Mellon University, a federally funded group that coordinates responses to computer-security incidents.
But the agency is making some headway, thanks partly to a diplomatic offensive to enlist help from foreign agencies. It now has about 150 agents deployed in some 56 offices around the world, including in Iraq and China, which deal with computer intrusions, as well as terrorism and other crimes. That has grown from about a dozen offices in the early 1990s.
During the past two years or so, the FBI has also built up Cyber Action Teams, or CATs -- a group of about 25 people that includes agents, computer forensic experts and specialists in computer code, according to David Thomas, the deputy assistant director of the FBI's science and technology branch. Establishing the team has taken longer than expected, in part because of the challenges of hiring people with the right skills, Mr. Thomas says.
Earlier this month, the FBI announced the arrest of at least 16 individuals involved in a credit-card theft scam as part of an investigation spanning the U.S., Poland and Romania. As part of the probe, the FBI temporarily posted several agents with Polish and Romanian police to assist with surveillance and information sharing.
Some overseas police agencies have noticed the change. The FBI is "much more open to interaction" than it was even a few years ago, says Kevin Zuccato, director of the Australian federal police's high-tech crime center. One FBI agent is even embedded full-time with Australia's high-tech crime center. Usually, FBI agents are posted within U.S. embassies and consulates abroad.
Police in other countries can also get touchy about defending their turf from outsiders, just as a local beat cop in the U.S. might resent interference from the FBI on a murder case. In 2002, Russian police accused an FBI agent with computer hacking after the agent seized evidence against two Russian hackers by downloading data from their computers in Russia without approval from local authorities. Russia hasn't pursued the charges, however, and the agent is still at the FBI. The two countries since then have worked on several cybercrime cases.
The FBI's overseas push is still a long way from winning the borderless battle against cybercrime. But as the tale of the Zotob virus shows, the agency is scoring some victories.
By Sunday Aug. 14, 2005, the FBI and antivirus software companies noticed that a virus called Zotob had started to spread. The virus infected computers by taking advantage of a weakness in some versions of Microsoft Corp.'s popular Windows operating system, causing them to slow or reboot repeatedly.
But that wasn't all: Zotob opened a door for other malicious software to be installed, such as "key-logging" programs that record what a PC user types into a keyboard -- a way to snatch credit-card numbers and other information that is sold to criminal gangs. Zotob hit some 100,000 companies or more, some analysts estimate, including Time Warner Inc.'s CNN division and New York Times Co.
Even before the virus became famous by attacking CNN's computers, FBI Agent Erkan Chase and his colleagues were tracking the code. They discovered that the Zotob computer program had a signature line "by Diabl0". Mr. Chase, a 41-year-old former New York cop, recalled the nickname from another virus that he had started monitoring earlier in the year, called Mytob. That suggested the same person created both viruses.
Mr. Chase, who was overseeing the FBI's Cyber Action Teams at the time, checked in with the FBI's U.S. field offices and found that agents in Seattle had opened an investigation into Diabl0 after Mytob hit, linking him to an email account at Microsoft in nearby Redmond, Wash. With search warrants served on the software giant, Mr. Chase and his colleagues obtained emails between Diabl0 and another suspect using the nickname "Coder." They also received subscriber information and other evidence indicating the two were using computers in Morocco and Turkey, respectively.
In their email traffic, the tone of the hackers became cautious after media coverage of the virus, especially a local report in Turkey that authorities believed one of the hackers might be living there. The two suspects discussed whether to take precautions by getting rid of the evidence, by wiping or ditching their computer hard drives.
That raised the pressure on Mr. Chase to act quickly and try to arrest the two young men before it was too late. "We had to respond pretty quickly because we didn't want to get out there and find there was no evidence," he said.
Late afternoon on Aug. 18, 2005, just days after the virus hit, the head of the Turkish national police's cybercrime unit, Omer Tekeli, received a call from the U.S. Embassy in Ankara asking for help. The FBI teams only travel overseas at the behest of local authorities and don't have special powers to make arrests, but can offer technical and investigative assistance.
Mr. Tekeli agreed, and later that same day, an FBI agent from the Seattle office called to brief Turkish police on the details, including information they had gathered on Coder, Mr. Tekeli says. Mr. Tekeli's team soon identified Coder as Mr. Ekici, a farmer's son who had taught himself about computers at Internet cafes. Turkish authorities already knew of Mr. Ekici from an earlier investigation into a gang of credit-card thieves. Among other details, the FBI provided an email address for Coder that included part of Mr. Ekici's name as well as the equivalent of digital fingerprints that linked Coder's computer with Mr. Ekici's home address.
On Aug. 21, a week after noticing the virus, Mr. Chase left with a team of about a dozen people for Morocco and Turkey, flying in an FBI Learjet. The fact that Mr. Chase, whose mother is Turkish, spoke some of the local language helped smooth the process. After dropping half the group in the Moroccan capital of Rabat, Mr. Chase landed in Ankara, Turkey.
At the sparsely furnished offices of Turkey's cybercrime police, the FBI team handed over evidence they had obtained about the suspects from Microsoft and about 25 pages of analysis of the malicious code. FBI engineers gave a roughly hour-long presentation on how the code worked, complete with slides. In Rabat, meanwhile, emails provided by the FBI enabled Moroccan authorities to locate Diabl0 -- Mr. Essebar -- as well as an accomplice. Emails typically carry a unique set of numbers, known as an Internet protocol address, which identifies each computer connected to the Internet. Moroccan police were able to obtain the name and contact details associated with the Internet protocol addresses received from the FBI from a local Internet service provider.
The FBI's documents also helped local authorities swiftly secure arrest and search warrants. Concerned that the arrest of one suspect would tip off the others, Mr. Chase helped the two countries coordinate the raids. In the early hours of Aug. 25, Turkish police officers surrounded Mr. Ekici's home and took him into custody. About 2,000 miles away in Rabat, police moved in on Mr. Essebar and his accomplice. The FBI wasn't invited to be present at either of the arrests. Turkish and Moroccan authorities say that is because only local police are allowed to charge suspects under the respective national laws.
Mr. Ekici in Turkey had disposed of his computer hard drive so Turkish investigators weren't able to gather much evidence from his machine. But Mr. Essebar in Morocco only reformatted his hard drive, which wipes out files but let the Moroccan police's computer specialists recover most of them because copies often still exist.
Among the finds were copies of the code itself and other information identifying Mr. Essebar as Zotob's author. Police also found emails between Diabl0 and Coder discussing Zotob as well as the numbers of about 1,600 stolen credit cards.
In parallel, FBI specialists worked off a copy of the hard drive, searching for relevant emails and writing a piece of computer code on the fly to help them analyze the program. "We were able to use that information from Morocco and give it to Turkish authorities to further (their) investigation," says Mr. Chase.
In September of this year, a Rabat court sentenced Mr. Essebar, a Russian-born Moroccan national, to two years in prison for virus-writing, illegal access to computers and conspiracy to commit credit-card fraud. The court also sentenced his 21-year-old accomplice to one year in prison for conspiracy to commit fraud. A lawyer for Mr. Essebar couldn't be reached. At the time of the sentencing, news service Agence France Presse cited a lawyer for the defendants saying they planned to appeal.
Authorities allege Mr. Ekici, whom they believe met Mr. Essebar at a Web site for credit-card fraudsters, was responsible for disseminating the Zotob worm and intended to use it to steal financial information. But they say it is unclear whether he had time to swipe any information or profit from it given the speed with which they were able to arrest him, less than two weeks after the worm first spread.
The trial of Mr. Ekici, whom Turkish authorities have charged with unauthorized access to computers and disseminating a virus, continues in Turkey. He couldn't be reached for comment.
The Zotob case marked the first time foreign law enforcement has come to Turkey to assist in a cybercrime investigation, says Mr. Tekeli, the cybercrime unit chief in Turkey. Without the FBI's help, the investigation "would have been more difficult and more time consuming," he says. Hakim Aarab, an engineer in the Moroccan police's computer division, says because of the borderless nature of cybercrime, "international collaboration is an obligation, it's not an option."
First Published November 21, 2006 12:00 am