DA looking to create special tech crime unit 

click to enlarge Chief Information Officer Jamil Niazi, in the District Attorney’s Office’s crowded server room, could be joined by cybercrime-focused prosecutors. - JUAN PARDO/SPECIAL TO THE S.F. EXAMINER
  • Juan Pardo/special to the s.f. examiner
  • Chief Information Officer Jamil Niazi, in the District Attorney’s Office’s crowded server room, could be joined by cybercrime-focused prosecutors.

Cybercrime. Tech crime. Call it what you will.

One thing is clear: It is growing at a quickening pace and increasingly part of criminal activity. From cellphone thefts to email scams to murder for hire, cybercrime is becoming as ubiquitous as purse snatching.

San Francisco, with a burgeoning tech sector and a tech-saturated citizenry, is also becoming a center of tech crime. But law enforcement is woefully undergunned for technologically sophisticated criminals and the boom in tech crime.

Because of this shifting landscape, District Attorney George Gascón says he has an obligation to protect citizens and businesses alike.

Gascón aims to build a tech crime unit modeled on the specialization of New York County's District Attorney's Office of the prosecution of financial crimes.

"We are continually getting further and further behind," Gascón said. "Our ability to investigate where some level of tech is being used is increasingly less at a time that this thing is exponentially growing."

The problem is manpower and antiquated technology.

That's why Gascón is asking Mayor Ed Lee to budget $600,000 so Gascón can hire four staff members.

If the budget request is denied, Gascón argues that sophisticated criminals will have a freer hand to commit crimes and get away with it.

If the money comes, Conrad Del Rosario, one of the few local prosecutors who has tried a network intrusion case, will oversee the team.

To effectively investigate and prosecute such crimes, Del Rosario will need forensic specialists in house who know how to, say, extract data from a cellphone and understand network intrusion. He will also need investigators who know how long technology companies keep their data, and what data to ask for in a search warrant, Del Rosario said.

The realization that there was a need for tech-savvy prosecutors and investigators came to a head in 2008 when one rogue system administrator refused to give up key passwords for The City's network, said Del Rosario, who was tasked with the prosecution but had little background in computer crime.

The Terry Childs case, said Del Rosario, was "a baptism by fire on technology."

But such cases are no longer the exception, and having forensic and investigative experts in this area is paramount.

Sgt. Kevin McPherson, an investigator with the Police Department's financial crimes and fraud unit, says that much of the tech-related crime he deals with is small-scale identity theft and scams.

But, he said, there are challenges specific to investigating Internet-related crimes. Many local Internet companies, for instance, are not only reluctant to give information to the police, but just contacting them is a challenge, McPherson said.

"Basically, we pretty much use the Internet like everybody else does to search for things," he said of the obstacles of trying get in touch with Internet companies. "Usually we can never get past the lobby."

That can be an issue when it comes to serving search warrants and subpoenas. McPherson even gets calls from law enforcement agencies across the country looking for help since in many cases criminals used Twitter or Craigslist.

Tom Flattery, a deputy district attorney out of Santa Clara County who prosecutes cases for a regional cybercrime task force, says oftentimes Internet companies aren't so much reluctant to hand over information but are overloaded with requests from law enforcement. That's why having specialized personnel on such cases is so important, he said.

"Having a dedicated team dealing with those requests enables them to get personal connections that might move your investigation to the top of the list," he said.

Meanwhile, Gascón's office is already dealing with cybercrime, Del Rosario said. Recently they worked on a network intrusion case involving a small technology company that came to them for help. In another case, the District Attorney's Office had to warn a startup because its business model -- collecting personal data -- was itself breaking the law.

"We are unquestionably one of the places where technology is just exploding," Gascón said. "We must protect our community."

Cybercrime numbers

State Attorney General Kamala Harris, who established an eCrime Unit in 2011, recently released a report on Internet crime that said:

- "Between 2009 and 2012, the number of intentional breaches of computer networks and databases in the U.S. jumped by 280 percent, with California's share leading the nation. Many of these breaches have been tied to transnational criminal organizations operating from Russia, Ukraine, Romania, Israel, Egypt, China, and Nigeria, among other places."

- The FBI, which tracks Internet crime, found that in 2013, losses from Internet crime in America amounted to $781,841,611, a significant increase from the reported losses in 2012, $581,441,110.

- California, according to the FBI, ranked No. 1 when it came to reports of such crimes, amounting to 12.13 percent of all reports nationally.

-- Staff report

About The Author

Jonah Owen Lamb

Jonah Owen Lamb

Born and raised on a houseboat in Sausalito, Lamb has written for newspapers in New York City, Utah and the San Joaquin Valley. He was most recently an editor at the San Luis Obispo Tribune for nearly three years. He has written for The S.F. Examiner since 2013 and covers criminal justice and planning.
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