It took less than 24 hours for the FBI to track an e-mail message in December from the inbox of a Columbine High School student in Colorado to its source on the computer of a Florida teenager.
Just one search warrant allowed law enforcement to lift the thin veil of anonymity - in this case, the name Soup81 - from the e-mail address that shielded Michael Ian Campbell. Mr. Campbell's message to 16-year-old Erin Walter threatening to finish the deadly rampage begun by two high school seniors at Columbine last April, shut down the high school for two days. Campbell has said he was only joking.
But the ability of law enforcement to reach behind pseudonyms and unmask computer criminals is no laughing matter. The Internet has become a welcoming host to a vast array of crimes, from terrorism to stock fraud to stalking, luring perpetrators with the apparent ease of online anonymity.
Law enforcement is struggling to catch up to the latest computer technology, scrambling to develop the knowledge and capability to crack even the most sophisticated cybercrimes. Meanwhile, their fancy detective work is making the defenders of civil liberties nervous, as they envision such snooping technology being used to monitor people's private lives.
For many, the attraction of the Internet is the ability to speak one's mind with anonymity. E-mail, chat rooms, message boards, and listservs allow users to spread their messages without fear of repercussion. But Martha Stansell-Gamm, chief of the Computer Crimes and Intellectual Property Section at the Department of Justice, says the government is seeing an enormous increase in computer crimes, as Internet use roughly doubles each year. "It can be very difficult to attribute particular conduct to a particular person," she says.
Local law enforcement is similarly stymied. "The technology the bad guys have seems to be in advance of what the police have," says Bob Wallace, spokesman for the National Association of Chiefs of Police.
Barbera Moser, an FBI agent in Miami, says federal agents are desperately trying to catch up. "We're not used to dealing with an electronic medium. We have too many officers out there who didn't grow up with this stuff."
There are all sorts of ways for computer criminals to hide their tracks, from spoof headers to anonymous remailers to multiple layers of encryption. But most messages have some sort of return address, which is how computers communicate.
Usually, law enforcement can trace back along the chain of addresses to an Internet service provider that, if served with a warrant, will turn over information that identifies the source of the message. "If there's any way for us, we're going to find it," says Ms. Stansell-Gamm, who adds that the Justice Department is engaged in a massive effort to educate prosecutors nationwide about the latest computer technology.
But defenders of privacy and civil liberties fear that increasingly sophisticated means for tracing messages may mean the end of anonymity on the Internet. "I think this is going to be one of the big battles that's fought over the next years," says David Sobel, general counsel for the Electronic Privacy Information Center, a nonprofit research group.
At the heart of the battle is the First Amendment, which the Supreme Court has said protects anonymous speech. In 1995, the Supreme Court in McIntyre v. Ohio Elections Commission struck down an Ohio law that required identification of the authors of anonymous leaflets, noting that anonymous messages "have played an important role in the progress of mankind."
Both sides in the debate acknowledge that there is a palpable tension between developing the technological means to trace Internet lawbreakers and maintaining the right of legitimate, anonymous speech.
Says Saunders: "I don't want a Big Brother state, but I also don't want to see innocent victims getting killed."
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society