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By Jim Forbes Infoworld Staff

AUSTIN, TX - Law enforcement officials here have joined a growing number of police agencies nationwide running "sting" operations to catch persons using bulletin boards for illegal purposes.

 Based on information posted on a bulletin board it operated, the Austin

Police Department said it has been able to turn off two pirate boards here and expects shortly to make a number of arrests for misdemeanor violations of Texas' newly enacted computer crime law.

 For more than two years, the department secretly ran a board called the

Underground Tunnel, which was set up to appear as a bulletin board run by a system operator called Pluto. But late last month - to the surprise of the board's more than 1,000 users - Pluto was revealed as Sgt. Robert Ansley, a seven-year veteran of the police department.

 "Most of the users were people interested primarily in several on-line

fantasy games or in electronic messaging," Ansley said. "To get to the levels where people posted information on how to crash corporate systems, the user had to ask for increased access. We were very careful not to solicit or entrap anyone into leaving illegal information."

 The Austin police department disclosure caught most of the board's users by

surprise. "I liked the board's electronic messaging capabilities," said user Michael Whalen, the managing editor of the Daily Texan, the student newspaper of the University of Texas here. "I was really surprised at how the officer was able to pull this off."

 What the police found, according to Ansley, included access codes belonging

to the world's largest credit reporting organization, TRW Information Services Systems Division of Orange, California. "Most offenders seem to be real big on TRW," said Ansley.

 Sting and intelligence gathering bulletin board operations are on the rise

throughout the country, according to law enforcement officials. Several police departments nationwide have already used bulletin boards to track down and arrest microcomputer users who post illegally obtained calling card codes, mainframe access procedures and passwords, or other confidential information. According to one high-lvel West Coast law enforcement officer who declined to be identified, federal officials are now joining local authorities in running bulletin boards in several key metropolitan areas.

 "You better believe law enforcement agencies are interested and, in some

cases, running bulletin boards," said Dan Pasquale, a sergeant with the Fremont, California, police department. Last month, police in Fremont capped three and a half months of bulletin board operations by arresting eight individuals for alleged credit card fraud, misuse of telephone credit card operations, and technical trespass. Pasquale said most corporations whose passwords or calling card numbers were posted on Fremont's board were unaware that their information had been compromised.

 Although police are pleased with their results, some users say they feel the

sting bulletin boards are unfair to both innocent users and suspected criminals alike. Whalen said students at the University of Texas used the board extensively, and he claimed that some people accused of posting access codes and other information on the board felt they had been entrapped when they discovered that the board was a police sting operation.

 Whalen also said that some users where concerned about the privacy and

sanctity of electronic mail left on the board. "Ansley said users are foolish if they don't think a system operator reads the mail on the board," he added.

 Indeed, as police turn increasingly to bulletin boards to catch suspected

criminals, the issue of entrapment has also become a growing concern, one to which police are sensitive.

 "At no time did the police department urge users to leave access codes,

applications, or passwords for corporate computers on the Tunnel," Ansley said.

 To prove entrapment, a suspect would have to cleary show that a government

agent offered some type of inducement to promote criminal activity, said Jim Harrington, the legal director of the Texas Civil Liverties Union here. "The whole are of police gaining information on [criminal activities] by reading electronic mail is very interesting."

 Fremont police held a series of meetings with a district attorney before

they started the board, according to Pasquale. "We established a point where entrapment began and made sure we never crossed that point," he said. "In fact, messages on the board were scripted in conjunction with the district attorney's office."


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