Digital clues help police land high-tech pirates

HONEST DAY'S WORK? A vendor on Manhattan's Canal Street sells DVDs. Many street vendors turn out to be selling bootleg DVDs and CDs, as well as counterfeit designer products.

Richard B. Levine/Newscom

Last month, the Sacramento Valley Hi-Tech Crimes Task Force, along with the U.S. Attorney's Office and the Secret Service, busted what they described as a massive DVD pirate ring.

They seized more than 50,000 disks from a Stockton, Calif., storefront, including movies not yet available in stores, such as 'Deuce Bigalow European Gigalo,' 'The Wedding Crashers' and 'The 40-Year Old Virgin.'

When the case goes to court, the prosecuting attorneys should have some strong evidence, thanks to both the cybersleuthing prowess of the detectives and additional information provided by optical-disk forensic software. This software can read information embedded on DVDs and CDs that can't be viewed by normal means.

The Sacramento Valley Hi-Tech Crimes Task Force was formed in 1995 to help investigate cases involving computers and technology. A partnership between Sacramento Valley law enforcement agencies and resident IT companies, the force investigates identity theft, online child pornography, counterfeiting and other cybercrimes.

Police nationwide see more and more cases involving movie and music piracy, thanks to the proliferation of low-cost consumer electronics that can reproduce and package digital content.

'In a digital environment, you can do just about anything you want,' said Lydell Wall, a detective in the Stanislaus County Sheriff's Department who was assigned as a computer forensic examiner to the task force. The Motion Picture Association of America estimates that the movie industry loses about $3 billion annually to unauthorized copying and selling of movies.

Bootlegging is easy

On Wall's desk is a DVD of 'The Passion of the Christ.' When Wall pops the movie into his Dell laptop, it is immediately obvious that this is an unauthorized copy. The picture is grainy, as if it were recorded by a video camera aimed at a movie theater screen. As if to confirm Wall's suspicion, a moviegoer a few rows in front of the camera operator can be seen in silhouette getting up and walking to the aisle.

This copy of 'Passion' shows how easily a movie in the theater can be filmed and transferred to DVD using standard DVD authoring software.

Wall picked up this copy of 'Passion' when he was called in to check out a local flea market vendor who had more than 1,000 music CDs and movie DVDs'including the top five box office films at the time long before they hit the video store shelves.

When the task force finds a store or street vendor selling such illegal copies, there is plenty of clear evidence. Usually the artwork on the case is amateurish and does not resemble the official artwork, which the Task Force can obtain from the movie's production company. This particular copy of 'Passion' was marked as the work of Homey Productions, in all likelihood not the actual production company behind the Mel Gibson flick.

In addition to these telltale signs, the task force also looks for other, harder-to-pinpoint signs that the disks are unauthorized. Here is where disk forensic software helps. Wall uses CD/DVD Inspector from InfinaDyne Electronic of Grayslake, Ill., to decipher all sorts of useful information hidden on a disk's secret layers.

'Typically, we see the master software that may have been used. There might be imprints of the author's name,' Wall said. The software could reveal the time and date the disk was made. The disk's hidden sectors can also reveal what type of recorder was used, and even what kind of computer was used to master the disk.

About the Author

Joab Jackson is the senior technology editor for Government Computer News.

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