Funding crunch menaces Maine computer sleuths

Funding crunch menaces Maine computer sleuths

Members of the Maine Computer Crimes Task Force at work: Detective Michael Webber, far left, is a forensic examiner with the special unit. His colleague, Maine State Police Detective Bill Harwood, center, reviews evidence with Detective James Rioux. The state spends about $10,000 a year on training for each of the computer forensic examiners on the task force.

BY WILSON P. DIZARD III | GCN STAFF

A state budget shortfall combined with the expiration of a federal grant has put the future of Maine's Computer Crimes Task Force in jeopardy.

The task force has generated several indictments in the process of carrying out dozens of investigations and analyzing scores of suspect computers, but its funds could run out this year.

State Rep. Judith Peavey has introduced a bill to replace the unit's $150,000, three-year grant from the U.S. Justice Department's Office of Juvenile Justice Programs. But Maine faces a $230 million deficit in its budget of approximately $5 billion, and legislators are looking for programs to cut, not add.

Several states face similar budget crunches, according to the National Governors' Association [GCN/State & Local, January, Page 1].

'Any kind of new spending is going to have a difficult time. It's a matter of setting priorities,' said Rep. Bill Schneider, assistant House minority leader. 'This project is going to have to fit into the entire budget process.'
Schneider said he is familiar with the task force's work and thinks it is doing a good job.

Rep. Ed Povich, chairman of the House Criminal Justice Committee, said Peavey had told him of the bill but that its full text is not available. 'If it's a serious problem and needs funding we should meet it,' he said.

No shortage of work

Lewiston Police Department Patrolman Michael Webber said the Computer Crime Task Force had 'six computers backed up on the day we opened' last July. Since then, the task force has launched 33 investigations, leading to seven federal indictments and two state indictments.

The task force has combed over 94 computers since last July, finding crime-related information in e-mail, chat logs, spreadsheets and databases, Webber said.

The unit investigates a broad range of crimes, including arson, murder, bank robbery and crimes involving children.

In one recent case, Webber said, the task force recovered data from a computer in a burned building by removing the hard drive, installing it in a police computer and analyzing it with EnCase forensic software from Guidance Software Inc. of Pasadena, Calif.

The State Fire Marshal is probing the possibility of insurance-related arson, Webber said of the case, which is still under investigation.

Another investigation led to the arrest of Harry N. Munson of Eastport on charges of attempted kidnapping and attempted gross sexual assault, Webber said.

Munson allegedly had posted ads on the Internet looking for someone to kidnap and rape his 12-year-old daughter and send him digital photos of the crime, according to police. Munson, who was released on bail, could not be reached for comment.

The task force is comprised of police officers from Lewiston, Brunswick and the State Police. Each officer uses a Gateway Inc. Pentium II notebook PC with 128M of RAM and a 12G hard drive.

The task force also has a Forensic Recovery of Evidence Device from Digital Intelligence Inc. of Waukesha, Wis., that it can take to remote locations to analyze computers without removing them.

FRED can recover data from a variety of devices, including 3.5-inch and 5.25-inch disks, as well as Jaz drives and Zip cartridges from Iomega Corp. of Roy, Utah, and CD-ROMs, DVDs and 4-mm tape cartridges.

FRED incorporates a 700-MHz Pentium III processor, 128M of synchronous dynamic RAM, two 40G IDE drives, six removable hard drive racks, three types of SCSI ports and video and sound peripherals. It runs Microsoft Windows 98.

The task force also uses hardware running Linux 7.1 from Red Hat Inc. of Research Triangle Park, N.C. Its collection of hardware includes homemade systems and desktop computers from Gateway and Compaq Computer Corp.

'It costs about $30,000 to $40,000 to train a forensic computer examiner, and required annual training costs about $10,000,' Webber said. 'That doesn't include the cost of equipment and salaries.'

'This is a good part of the future of law enforcement,' Lewiston Police Chief William Welch said. 'In the past, if you were executing a search warrant, you wouldn't even consider taking the computer. Now we train our people to take the computers.'

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