Saturday, July 16, 2005
law enforcement officials charged with busting sophisticated financial crime and hacker rings, making arrests and seizing computers used in the criminal activity is often the easy part. More difficult can be making the case in court, where getting a conviction often hinges on whether investigators can glean evidence off of the seized computer equipment and connect that information to specific crimes. The wide availability of powerful encryption software has made evidence gathering a significant challenge for investigators. Criminals can use the software to scramble evidence of their activities so thoroughly that even the most powerful supercomputers in the world would never be able to break into their codes. But the U.S. Secret Service believes that combining computing power with gumshoe detective skills can help crack criminals' encrypted data caches. Taking a cue from scientists searching for signs of extraterrestrial life and mathematicians trying to identify very large prime numbers, the agency best known for protecting presidents and other high officials is tying together its employees' desktop computers in a network designed to crack passwords that alleged criminals have used to scramble evidence of their crimes -- everything from lists of stolen credit card numbers and Social Security numbers to records of bank transfers and e-mail communications with victims and accomplices.