Electronic Design

New Crimes For New Times: Blazing A Trail To Jail

Here in New Jersey and in neighboring New York, there are laws against using handheld cell phones while driving. With 25% of auto accidents attributed to motorists distracted by nondriving activities, I think the laws make some sense. (But have I stopped using my cell phone while driving? I'll plead the Fifth on that one!)

The American Automobile Association says that cell-phone use ranks seventh among unsafe driver distractions, well below such still-legal hazards as adjusting the radio, eating and drinking, and grooming. But cell-phone use is seen as a growing and preventable menace, and it's easier to legislate than, say, checking one's coif in the mirror. (These laws should be a boon to designers of headsets and in-car accessories, since hands-free calls are still legal.)

The level of distraction involved in a cell call pales next to the recent story of a New York man charged with driving while watching television. According to the Reuters news agency, police noticed an adult movie, Chocolate Foam, playing on screens embedded in the man's Mercedes' headrests. When police pulled him over, they saw a screen in the passenger-side visor turned toward the driver so he could indulge in Chocolate Foam while cruisin'! The man was charged with public display of offensive material, driving with a suspended license, and driving while watching television, a case thought to the first of its kind in New York.

A first for today, but it's no doubt destined to be one of many such crimes as we face new social and legal issues raised by easy access to previously restricted or forbidden content. As video migrates to cell phones, cars, and PDAs, restrictions on when and where use is permitted also will be informed by the type of content involved.

With today's phones incorporating cameras, legal issues surround not just image display, but image capture as well. Some states are passing "video voyeur" statutes making it illegal to photograph a nonconsenting person in circumstances in which that person has "a reasonable expectation of privacy."

In Japan, where camera phones have greater market penetration, arrests related to phone cameras have been rising, many involving men on subways taking furtive camera shots under women's skirts.

The Japan Times reports that phones have also become the center of copyright and other privacy issues. It's easy to carry the cameras to places where photography is prohibited: concerts, museums, even magazine and book stores where materials are photographed rather than purchased. To try to deter illicit use, most Japanese phones emit a sound and/or a light when the shutter is released, alerting others that a photo has been taken.

Of course, it's not just everyday phone-toting citizens and the occasional subway pervert getting into legal troubles. Career criminals use computers, cell phones, and all means of electronics to conduct their "business" as well. According to Thomas Kneir of the FBI, law enforcement at every level has seen a steady growth in the use of computers to facilitate criminal activity, with FBI computer forensics cases more than tripling since the turn of the century.

In some FBI cases, the computer system is only incidental to the crime, as with drug dealers who use computers to store transaction records. In many cases, the computer system is a criminal tool in itself, used for faking IDs, counterfeiting documents, and distributing child pornography.

While electronic crime is a high-growth pursuit, so is electronic sleuthing. To keep pace in sorting out the evidence, the U.S. is opening new Regional Computer Forensic Laboratories where electronics detectives work to extract evidence from every sort of device, from cameras and phones to smart cards and PDAs. The FBI works with regional law enforcement agencies to staff and run the labs, supporting the forensics work of multiple agencies. The RCFL's highest-profile case has been extracting information from the computers used by the terrorists involved in the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks.

Last month, the FBI unveiled plans for an expansion laboratory here in New Jersey, with other new labs in Buffalo, Houston, Portland, and Salt Lake City joining previously established facilities in Kansas City, Chicago, and San Diego. Evidence Technology magazine described the labs as "a computer geek's wildest dream... Each workstation has more than 100 electrical outlets and contains sets of computers, hard drives, monitors, printers, and other devices in various states of assembly."

Perhaps you'd be interested in finding out how to apply your design background to help take a bite out of electronic crime. Check out the lab's Web site at www.nationalrcfl.org.

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