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Online services for law enforcement.

A small police department in the Midwest experiences difficulty with the brakes installed on its patrol cars. Officers complain of rapid brake fade, and repairs are made frequently and at substantial cost. A lieutenant from the department, who subscribes to an online service, posts the information on a forum restricted to individuals with a personal or professional interest in public safety.

Within a day, this message generates replies from officers in other parts of the country with similar problems, a writer who reviews police vehicle performance, and a vendor of the vehicles. The lieutenant learns that due to inadequacies in the police package, the manufacturer will perform remedial repairs and upgrades at no cost - information that the local dealer who serviced the department's patrol cars did not have. The lieutenant goes to his chief with a cost-saving solution to the brake problem.

A rapist in Las Vegas, Nevada, flees after being released on bail. A lieutenant with the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department learns from an FBI agent that the subject has surfaced in Scotland. The lieutenant contacts a detective with the Strathclyde Police in Scotland that he "met" in an online forum. The Strathclyde police officer locates the fugitive within a few days. Today, these same officers use the online service to facilitate a program they initiated that donates soft body armor from retired officers in the United States to those in the United Kingdom, where the items are both expensive and difficult to obtain.

As these officers have discovered, access to the online community provides law enforcement agencies with the tools they need to serve their communities more effectively. Unfortunately, many police agencies have yet to reap the benefits that the Information Superhighway offers, often because they simply do not understand how online access can benefit them. From bulletin board systems to Internet features to commercial service providers, this article explains what is available for law enforcement agencies that get online.


Establishing an online presence requires a computer, a modem with appropriate communications software, and a telephone line. The computer need not be a state-of-the-art model, as many online resources do not require a complex display or high processor capacity. However, taking advantage of all of the resources available online requires a computer running at least Microsoft Windows or Macintosh System 7, with a hard disk drive and at least 100 megabytes available storage space. Computer systems with less simply cannot access as many online features.


A bulletin board system (BBS) is a small online service, usually patronized by people with similar interests. One of the most basic online resources, computer bulletin boards require neither an e-mail account nor an Internet connection. Rather, to access them, users need only have their computer modems call the modem of the BBS, and the process is more or less automated from there.

Once connected, users usually answer a series of questions about their identities to verify their need to use the system, and some BBS operators require users to pay a fee. New users get a name - sometimes their own, often a one-word alias - and a password that ensures that no one else can access their accounts.

Bulletin boards exist for hunters, collectors, political activists, hobbyists of all types, and of course, law enforcement officers. Anyone with a computer, a phone line, the appropriate software, and the desire to do so can set up a BBS, and thousands of individuals have done just that. Because many BBS sponsors run their services with out-of-pocket funds, bulletin boards can be very transitory. This can sometimes be a blessing, as some bulletin boards have been used by credit card defrauders, computer crackers,(1) and pedophiles to spread criminal and contraband information online.

Bulletin boards frequently have ongoing discussions of noteworthy events. Discussions take place when users read messages posted by others and either post a reply or start a new message topic, commonly referred to as a "thread." Some BBS software allows replies directly to individuals, and others allow only public postings.

System operators control who accesses their bulletin boards, and they also can monitor virtually any conversation or private e-mail they desire. Yet, because user names usually ensure anonymity, many BBS users express their opinions on issues of emotional importance to them.

In addition to sponsoring discussions, bulletin boards often maintain files for users to download, and the availability of these files is one of the biggest attractions of some systems. Many systems contain graphics files, which include clip art images, news and personal photos, and others. Some systems also allow subscribers to send messages to other bulletin boards and to connect to the Internet.

Many law enforcement agencies maintain bulletin boards as public relations tools. They may contain graphics files, software programs, text files, and message files saved, or "captured," from interesting past discussions. One of the more stable law enforcement-related bulletin boards is that of the SEARCH Group in Sacramento, California.(2)


Because they require only an e-mail connection, listservs represent one of the more cost-effective methods for networking with criminal justice professionals around the world. A listserv is a type of mailing list sent to users who request it.

Sometimes, users "lurk," or simply read the message traffic passively; in other cases, they take an active role. Discussions take place as members of the listserv post questions or comments to other subscribers. Listservs also can be used to post information of interest to members, such as an upcoming training event or a job opening.

Some listservs are moderated; that is, the list owner sees each message and decides whether to send it on to the subscribers. The list owner also can edit messages before sending them.

One of the more popular law enforcement-related listservs is POLICE-L, which is run by a former New York auxiliary police officer who now serves with the Orange, Connecticut, Police Department. Membership in POLICE-L requires that the subscriber send, by conventional mail, documentation of active or retired law enforcement status, such as an identification card. Once cleared for access, the subscriber can receive postings to the list.(3)


With its vast collection of computer networks worldwide, the Internet can provide users access to a wide variety of online resources. Whether participating in an online discussion group or downloading a news article from the World Wide Web, criminal justice professionals can gather critical information from this ever-expanding database.

The World Wide Web

The World Wide Web (WWW) has been called the fastest-growing aspect of the Internet. The WWW is a graphically oriented network of "pages" that contain text, still and full-motion graphics, sound files, and links to other pages. These links allow users to tab or click on a line of text and instantly be sent to the page connected to that link, no matter how far away. Physical distance is not a factor on the Internet, and it costs no more to search a Web site in Australia than it does to look at one in the user's hometown.

WWW pages are constructed using Hypertext Markup Language (HTML) and are indexed by an address called a Uniform Resource Locator (URL). These addresses, which can be simple or complex, are determined by the online service that contains them, often a commercial provider that rents space on its server(4) for the user's home page.

Criminal justice organizations at every level have discovered the value of the Web and have constructed their own home pages. Some states have made their criminal statutes available, and the entire U.S. Code can be accessed at

Some local law enforcement agencies use the WWW as a community relations tool, posting photos of officers, department activities, notice of neighborhood meetings, crime prevention tips, and the like. In fact, because some of the major word-processing software packages now include HTML add-ons that translate regular text into this specialized computer language, even individuals with less-than-cutting-edge technical skills can construct their own Web pages.

Viewing WWW pages requires special software to translate the HTML code into something the user's computer recognizes. Most of the commercial online services now offer this type of software at no extra cost as part of their sign-up packages.

Unfortunately, the level and convenience of some providers' WWW access are uneven. Some services are ploddingly slow, and it may take several minutes for even a single page of graphics to transfer to the user's desktop machine. To compensate, most Internet providers have an option for accessing the bare bones of the WWW, called Lynx. Lynx is an HTML interpreter that accesses WWW pages, but displays only the text information, with a dark block where graphics images would otherwise appear.

USENET Newsgroups

USENET is a component of the Internet that contains discussion groups, called newsgroups, of every interest imaginable. Newsgroups work similarly to listservs, but instead of retrieving postings from their mailboxes, users invoke a newsreader, which displays the items and allows users to reply or post new messages.

There are literally thousands of newsgroups, organized in a hierarchy denoted by periods to separate the categories. Most newsgroup titles closely describe their subjects, for example, misc.books.technical, about books on technical topics, and, about outer space research. There also are very extensive "alt" hierarchies, such as

Unfortunately, a number of regular subscribers to frequent the group to bash the police participants from a safe distance. This occurs because, like most newsgroups, is not moderated.

Though reading the numerous postings may be time-consuming, newsgroups represent an excellent way to stay abreast of developments from a distance. And, while they may not have a great deal of useful information for police officers, they may prove extremely useful to investigators collecting intelligence information. Several child pornography cases have been made by monitoring USENET postings, and conversations on the groups frequented by computer crackers can provide fraud and computer crime investigators with insight into their operations.

Not all online services carry newsgroups, as they require a great deal of disk space and consume other computing resources. Other services (especially some college-run providers) intentionally restrict certain newsgroups, in order to remain a family-oriented service. Internet service providers can furnish potential subscribers a list of what newsgroups they carry.

Telnet and FTP Sites

Telnet, another Internet feature, allows users to access other Internet providers and use their computers as if they were connected directly. Telnet can save users money if they can connect to an Internet provider toll free; using another service might require a toll call.

For instance, the SEARCH Group recently added a telnet connection. Prior to this, users connecting to SEARCH from outside the Sacramento calling area had to pay the toll charges on a long-distance call. With a telnet connection, users can log on to their Internet service provider, type "telnet" and log on to that service with the user name and password registered with SEARCH. In this way, the Internet provides toll-free, long-distance phone service.

Telnet also is helpful for users who are away from home but have access to a visitor's account or some other Internet account and want to keep up with their e-mail. Users can telnet to the system that carries their e-mail accounts, log on as usual, and proceed to read and send e-mail.

Similar to telnet is file transfer protocol (FTP),(5) which allows users to transfer files from one computer to another. Most FTP sites do not require that users have accounts. These sites use "anonymous" FTP. Once connected to the site and asked to enter a name and password, users can respond with "anonymous" as their names and their e-mail addresses as their passwords. An alternative to FTP, called ftpmail, sends files as e-mail for users with e-mail accounts but no FTP access.

Gopher Servers

Gopher is a menu-driven utility that uses nested lists of choices from which users can select areas of interest. It is one of the simplest Internet utilities to use. The term "gopher" originated with its creators at the University of Minnesota, home of the Gophers athletic teams. And, just as a "go-fer" runs errands, this gopher takes an order for information, then runs and displays it.

To access a gopher server, users log on to their Internet provider, then type "gopher" at the system prompt. If gopher service is available, a list of metra options will appear on the screen. This feature makes it fairly easy to browse the gopher network, but can be frustrating, as users may have to wade through many menus before finding the one they want.

On most systems, the gopher server includes a choice of "Other Gopher and Information Servers" and/or "All the Gopher Servers in the World." Getting to this list is usually as simple as entering the number next to the listed choice and pressing the enter key. Hitting the spacebar will lead to subsequent pages if a menu consists of more than one page.

Users also can access a particular gopher server if they know its address. For instance, by typing gopher gopher:// users can access the Department of Justice's gopher server, which, among other features, includes the complete text of articles published in past issues of the FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin.

Archie and Veronica

How do users know what files are available and where to look for them? Fortunately, semiautomated utilities, or "search engines," take away some of the headache of this process. Two of the more popular utilities for the Internet are called Archie, which searches FTP sites, and Veronica, which searches for gopher servers.

Comic book fans may recognize these names as characters from a popular series, and the names are not entirely accidental. "Archie" got its name from its similarity to the word "archive" and was one of the first utilities of this type available. When other programmers started writing utilities, they also took names from the comic book series, including "Jughead" and "Betty," although these are not used as widely as Archie.

To get to an Archie server, users telnet to its address, then log on under the name Archie (no password required). A number of variables can be set that may streamline the search process. One particularly useful one is the set search command, which tells the server whether to take the search terms literally or merely to look for something close. At the Archie prompt, the command "set search sub" selects files that contain any part of the search term, while "set search exact" locates the exact file by name.

Once the search parameters have been set, the Archie prompt appears again. By putting the command "find" in front of any term, users can access a list of files that contain that word. These files will be sorted by server and will have the directory in which the file is found above it. To retrieve one of the flies listed, users would FTP to the directory and enter the command "get" followed by the location and name of the file as listed. This file then would transfer to the user's home directory.

By contrast, using the command "whatis" followed by a term of interest will provide a list of files that includes the search term in the software description database, a text description sometimes provided by the person who posted the file. Like display ads in the yellow pages of the phone book, these descriptions contain more information, but not every file has one.

To retrieve one of the files located by a "whatis" search, users enter the "find" command followed by the name of the file at the Archie prompt. Archie then provides a list of directories where the file is located.

Veronica works in a similar way. After selecting the Veronica menu option, users enter a search term in the window that appears. This term can be any word or words that likely will appear in the target's title or directory. A list of menu choices that meets the search criteria will result, and users can pick the menu items they want, just as they would for any other gopher menu.


Whether looking for full Internet access or merely an e-mail account, the fastest, most convenient, and least expensive method to get online is often via a commercial online service. Most services provide the software needed to access the system, and some allow users to employ generic communications software.

Costs usually include a set monthly fee plus a charge for online time accrued beyond the minimum covered by the fee. Long-distance charges to connect to the system sometimes apply as well. Overall, connect time can be minimized if the service allows users to perform time-consuming tasks, such as reading messages, composing replies, and writing new messages, while offline.

Due to fierce competition among service providers, nearly all offer prospective new customers a free introductory period where they are not charged for their online time. All of the services allow users to send e-mail to other users of that service, and most allow sending e-mail to users on other services and on the Internet.

Users who want only e-mail addresses should look for the most inexpensive and convenient service, as e-mail remains more or less the same from one service to another. What distinguishes the various services are their online forums and libraries.


Forums allow members to communicate with one another in real time. Many forums have moderators or system operators who provide advice and monitor the forum for unwanted activity. Most system operators can delete offensive, obscene, or otherwise inappropriate messages or lock out a user entirely. But, in the interest of free speech, they seldom exercise this capability.

Some forums, or sections of forums, restrict access to certain users, e.g., sheriffs and chiefs of police or sworn law enforcement officers. Members who wish to access these sections first must apply via an online form and have their status verified by the system operator.


Associated with forums, or sometimes located in a separate section, are file libraries, which contain software, text files, images and graphics, address lists, and almost anything else that can be contained in a computer file. The files originate from subscribers who have information they want to share.

In order to encourage these contributions, several services do not charge users to upload (copy) files from their personal computers to the library. Users who want the file pay for the connect time necessary to download it, which depends on the speed of both the user's computer modem and the online service's data connection, as well as the size of the file.

Library files have both titles and file descriptions, written by the person who posted the information. As a result, users can locate a file by subject without having to search each file individually. For example, to find information on agencies that have policies on the use of oleoresin capsicum (OC or pepper spray), a user would search the file libraries for the occurrence of such words as "OC," "oleoresin," and "pepper."


Many potential online users get frightened away by the prospect of introducing viruses into their personal computers or networks. Still others are concerned that a cracker or some other cybervandal will gain access to their sensitive computer data and either steal it or render it useless. Certainly, both represent valid concerns. But, just as biological viruses can be avoided, so can computer viruses. And data, like other sensitive property, can be secured against intruders.

The best protections against these kinds of invasions remain the simplest. Requiring employees to change their passwords regularly, not allowing easy-to-guess passwords (for example, names, nicknames, or birthdates), and immediately denying access to employees who leave the organization represent some basic security measures. In addition, telephone lines can be burglar-proofed by allowing only outgoing communications from that machine. Finally, a software barrier known as a "firewall" can exclude unauthorized users. Though not unbeatable, most firewalls will deter all but the most skilled and persistent invader.

Because e-mail sent over the Internet can pass through any number of computers before reaching its destination, it is, by nature, unsecure. Some skilled crackers can place packet-monitoring programs on servers that look for certain keywords and then capture files containing those keys to a file to be read later. Security-conscious users can use special software to encrypt messages so that only the intended recipient can read them.

Although outside sources threaten the security of computer systems, department employees may represent more of a threat. Employees who bring disks from home to use on their desktop machines can infect a system just as quickly as a virus introduced over a phone line. Moreover, amateur crackers from within the department may attempt to defeat the security system just to see if it can be done. Agency administrators should institute measures to prevent these scenarios from occurring.


Technology continues to advance rapidly, increasing the availability of computer systems to the public, while decreasing their costs. As a result, more individuals join the online community every day. While some remain content to cruise the Information Superhighway in search of conversation, others use the Internet as an avenue for their criminal enterprises.

Law enforcement officers cannot afford to let the information revolution pass them by. Instead, they can use the online resources available to gather intelligence, conduct research, exchange information, and reach out to their constituents. The tools they need may be just a keystroke or click away.


1 This term, which refers to people who break into computer systems in an unauthorized way, is preferred to "hacker," which is a person skilled in the writing and manipulating of computer code, legitimately or otherwise.

2 For information, phone 916-392-4640.

3 For information, send an e-mail message to police-l

4 A server is a central computer that users access to exchange information.

5 Though printed uppercase here, transferring to an FTP site usually requires a command typed in lowercase letters.

Mr. Timothy M. Dees, M.S. a former Reno, Nevada, police officer, now teaches criminal justice at Floyd College in Rome, Georgia. He can be reached on the Internet at
COPYRIGHT 1996 Federal Bureau of Investigation
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1996, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

Article Details
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Author:Dees, Timothy M.
Publication:The FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin
Date:Oct 1, 1996
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