Inconsistent policies trip up efforts to track terrorist finances

Interagency and global collaboration are critical to following terrorist money, according to a forensics expert.

Insufficient collaboration among federal agencies and differing domestic and foreign cyberspace policies are stymieing U.S. efforts to cut off financial support for terrorist groups, says one computer forensics expert who started his career at the World Trade Center in New York.

Tracking terrorist money involves analyzing credit card transactions, online payments, e-mails and other digital communications to understand a target's day-to-day spending habits, according to FBI officials. The data can reveal travel patterns and financial accounts of other associates that could confirm a suspect's affiliation with an al Qaeda cell, for example.

But following the money trail and finding links among conspirators requires a great deal of concern for balancing national security and individual online privacy.

More than a year after President Obama initiated an overhaul of the government's cyber policy framework, cooperation in that area is still lacking domestically and internationally, said Darren Hayes, computer information systems program chairman at Pace University. He began working in computer forensics in 1990 with financial services firm Cantor Fitzgerald, whose offices at the World Trade Center were destroyed in the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

Hayes pointed to an Oct. 13 agreement between the Defense and Homeland Security departments dictating the personnel and facilities that Defense's National Security Agency and DHS will share to improve cooperation on cyber operations.

"It's kind of strange that this comes out a year after a cybersecurity initiative was announced by Obama," he said. "It seems a little bit alarming to me that it's taken them this long to announce a cybersecurity partnership."

Part of the friction among governments trying to coordinate on anti-terrorist efforts is differing legal frameworks, Hayes stressed.

"I think one of the big problems now is cooperation internationally," he said, adding the United States can really depend only on the European Union for financial intelligence. Other nations have strict rules that prohibit authorities from combing through corporate business records and other financial transactions. "It's a big problem with stopping financing of terrorism," Hayes said.

Computer forensics is the practice of probing digital records for evidence that can hold up in court. Specialists uncover deleted e-mails and mine file folders to provide proof of cybercrimes, or other data relevant to criminal investigations.

For instance, many online scams go unreported because the culprits are strategically pilfering small amounts from many different victims to avoid detection, he said. A computer forensics examiner would have the skills to discern the nonobvious connections among hacked accounts. Typically, "it goes unnoticed until it amasses to a very large amount," Hayes said.

In the case of Sept. 11 terrorist Zacarias Moussaoui, the ability to follow his e-mail communications was critical to securing a conviction on conspiracy to kill U.S. citizens, Hayes said.