Cops Go High Tech to Battle Crime

Police in Freemont, Calif, are finding out that E-mail can be a good crime-solving weapon

Technology is indeed a double-edged sword, helping criminals and law-enforcement officials alike to ply their trades. But at least in one case, the good guys seem to have the sharper edge. E-mail, for instance, is helping the Freemont, Calif., police department's High Tech Computer Crime Unit solve computer crimes.

"We were basically looking for another set of eyes and ears," said Detective Bill Wack, describing why the unit decided to start using a stand-alone E-mail system, FreeMail, to receive tips regarding chip thefts and robberies of microprocessors.

"More than $1 million [worth of equipment] a month is stolen in Silicon Valley alone," Wack said. "It's a very big problem." The main target of the thefts, at this time, are memory chips, called SIMMS.

Businesses connected to the system send information to the police. For example, one company sent in descriptions and license plate numbers of cars that were prowling around late at night. It turns out that one of the cars belonged to someone arrested for burglarizing a high-tech business.

Wack also uses FreeMail to post weekly information, such as where groups of burglaries are occurring and general crime prevention tips.

Any business might be a victim, whether it is a PC manufacturer or a high-tech company that uses computers, Wack said. Overall, the business community has been in favor of the E-mail system, which has been running only a month.

Five businesses are connected, with 15 more to come online shortly. Wack said he was surprised to find that many of the businesses' security departments didn't have the modems or computers necessary to connect to FreeMail. Aside from purchasing computer equipment, there is no charge to the businesses to use FreeMail.

The police department has purchased a "parent" license to FreeMail that allows them to make "child" copies that can be freely distributed. FreeMail offers two licenses. The first, for $199, allows up to 200 copies to be made and gives the people holding copies the capability to E-mail each other, said Steve Saroff, vice president of FreeMail Inc. and one of the software's original developers. The 11-employee company, which is approximately one-and-a-half years old, is located in Missoula, Mont. For approximately an additional $400, the system can be set up to send and receive Internet E-mail through a FreeMail domain.

The second license costs $75 and allows unlimited copying, but users of the copies cannot communicate with each other directly; they must go through the parent.

FreeMail offers a private network that automatically compresses, encrypts and self-installs, Saroff said. FreeMail works on systems using Windows, WindowsNT, Windows95 and Macintosh. It hides all the technology from the user, so it is extremely easy to operate, he said.

One of the system's users agree. Midwest Motor Express, of Bismarck, N.D., has used FreeMail for the last year to communicate with vendors and customers nationwide. It's very easy to use and has saved the company money, although it is hard to quantify how much, said Midwest's John Roswick. For example, it has severly cut shipping costs and documents are turned around in hours instead of days.

Additionally, because the system only uploads and downloads mail -- users are not connected to phone lines when they read their E-mail -- phone and fax costs are cheaper, Roswick said.

The High Tech Crime Unit's E-mail network "is the oddest use of our product," Saroff said.

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