Cybercops take a byte out of computer crime | Science | Smithsonian

Cybercops take a byte out of computer crime

A detective working the computer crime beat still needs street smarts, but there's a lot of uncharted legal territory out there

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A company's computerized voice-mail system is mysteriously taken over; a jewelry store is robbed, with only a forgotten pager as a link to the burglar; a computer used in a crime has strong password-protecting software, preventing police access. As a "cybercop," one of several hundred in the country, Detective Keith Lowry of the San Jose Police Department solves these and other technology-related crimes. Though few admit that high-tech crime is a real threat, almost anyone can commit it or become its victim. And it's growing. Networks and massive databases store data on millions of people, and easy and inexpensive access to computers and cyberspace allows many to use computers to trade stocks, gossip, pay bills, shop--and commit crimes. Miniaturized computer parts, and a booming trade in stolen ones, also give cybercriminals an edge.

With technical training and special software, Detective Lowry treats criminals' computers carefully--partly because conviction, even prosecution, for computer crimes can be elusive. As simultaneous filing cabinets, communication devices and publishing tools, computers have legally complex roles. The Internet, with its informal openness, also poses challenges for law enforcement. "In the future," says Lowry, "cops are going to need to know how to use computers just as much as they need to know how to use a gun."

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