Seven units collaborate to fight growing cybercrime

Cybercrime is getting tougher and more frequent for businesses as well as families. Seven Washington State University units joined forces in late October to collaboratively spearhead a Cybercrime and Digital Forensics Initiative, which could benefit both the university and citizens statewide. (Photo: Rob McKenna, state attorney general)

The action was precipitated Oct. 25-26, when more than 100 people attended a Cybercrime and Digital Forensics Conference, sponsored by Washington State University at the Mirabeau Park Hotel in Spokane Valley. The conference drew participants from local and federal law enforcement, attorneys, business executives, WSU students and educators, and featured leading experts who provided insights on how cyber criminals collect and use personal information gleaned from the Internet to commit crimes. 

The seven WSU units, which formed the initial collaboration, took the lead in coordinating the inaugural conference. During that event, they realized a continued synergistic effort is needed at WSU to combat Internet crime. Included in the group were the:
* Division of Governmental Studies and Services,
* Office of the Vice President for Information Systems
* Center for Distance and Professional Education
* Police Department
* Criminal Justice Program
* Western Regional Institute for Community Oriented Public Safety
* WSU Extension

Participation in the initiative is already expanding. “Right now we’re gathering a diverse group of people to create an interdisciplinary infrastructure for the initiative,” said John Thielbahr, director of Professional Education for the Center for Distance and Professional Education.

Mike Gaffney, associate director of the Division of Governmental Studies and Services indicated, “We’ve currently got some great research happening in departments like the School of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science, but with this initiative we’ll be better able to coordinate our individual efforts to increase the reach and power of our research.”

Also recognizing the power of collaboration, Nick Lovrich, director of the Division of Governmental Studies and Services, stated, “At WSU we have many islands and pockets of interest and expertise related to this issue. This is an area where multiple disciplines can contribute something significant.”
“This initiative is a perfect example of how WSU’s land grant mission can be interpreted and delivered for the 21st century. We can bring the resources of the university to bear on a wide-reaching societal problem to create solutions that would not be possible without the university’s participation.” Gaffney added.

The immediate goals of the initiative, according to Gaffney, are to maximize three areas of activity already occurring on campus.

First, the initiative will expand existing digital forensics services for both internal and external audiences.

Second, the initiative will improve delivery of cybercrime-related education and training to both internal and external audiences. Internally, the initiative would help coordinate programs that have a mutual interest in exposing students to this topic (e.g., criminal justice, computer science, accounting, management information systems).  Externally, the initiative would facilitate training for law enforcement and human resource administrators.

Third, the initiative would coordinate the collaboration of WSU’s cybercrime research efforts.

At the conference, representatives from both government agencies and private enterprise confirmed that there are huge gaps to be filled by graduates with the unique knowledge and skills applicable to cybercrime, Internet safety and forensic analysis.  These jobs are in high demand due to cybercrime’s rapid growth.

Cybercrime prevalent here
Keynote speakers at the event illuminated the severity and depth of the issue, and discussed opportunities for improving efforts to combat cybercrime. Washington state ranks No. 7 nationwide in per-capita cases of identity theft, explained state Attorney General Rob McKenna in his keynote address, and ranks 50th (last) in the ratio of law enforcement personnel to the number of state residents.

“The problem is so bad that the AARP found that one in nine Washington residents have been the victim of identity theft in the last five years,” McKenna said.

McKenna’s office has hired two additional attorneys and a digital forensics expert solely focused on prosecuting cybercrimes. He also oversaw the creation of the state’s first anti-spyware law. Accorind to McKenna, the effort has resulted in three successful civil settlements against firms that created spyware targeting Washington residents.

300 teachers and officers

Other efforts undertaken by the Attorney General’s office include training 300 teachers and law enforcement officials to deliver the Netsmartz program across Washington state. Netsmartz provides age-appropriate materials for teaching K-12 children how to be safe online.

According to Internet child safety expert Linda Criddle, education efforts are critical because there is a severe lack of awareness among consumers.

“Youth and adults find the anonymity of the Internet really liberating, so we share more there,” Criddle explained in her presentation.

Bloggers and instant messagers

“When I talk to bloggers, they have no idea how much information they divulge about themselves,” said Criddle. “People are just hemorrhaging their personal information.”

Consumers fail to realize that criminals are collecting this information to later target them for crime, Criddle said. And sexual predators are not the only criminals using the Internet to their benefit. According to Criddle, criminals often use information gathered on the Internet to facilitate burglary, identity theft and numerous other crimes.

“Most people will never know they were targeted because of the information they place on the Internet.”

However, Criddle explained that consumers can learn to minimize their vulnerabilities. “Just saying that your kids can’t use social networking sites is a knee-jerk reaction. We have to teach people to see what they’re sharing—they don’t see it, but the predators do.”

Common mistakes

Common mistakes include posting photos without blurring or obscuring personal information included in the photo. Criddle explained that most consumers fail to realize how easy it is to identify their address, age, socioeconomic status and emotional state through their blog and photo postings. Even if a consumer is careful not to reveal such information, it may be disclosed accidentally by friends making comments and posts.

“You have to think about what information you’re sharing and who you’re really sharing it with. It’s when you share personal information with a larger group that you substantially increase your risk.”

To get involved in the Cybercrime and Digital Forensics Initiative, e-mail or visit

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