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FBI looks for terror's tracks online

©New York Times

© St. Petersburg Times,
published September 15, 2001


The online posting on Aug. 30 sounded like the rantings of a crank: The subject was "911," and it warned "Something is going to happen tomorrow . . . REPENT!"

On Sept. 4, the author of the first message, "Xinoehpoel," was back: "Wait 7 days," he wrote.

The few people reading the obscure Internet discussion over the prophesies of Nostradamus dismissed it. But seven days after the message, on Sept. 11, the towers of the World Trade Center and the Pentagon were attacked. Xinoehpoel quickly returned to the discussion to gloat that he had predicted the disaster.

And that was when the FBI and anti-terrorism investigators in 10 cities started calling the offices of O1.com, a Sacramento, Calif., company that sells Internet access to smaller Internet service providers. Xinoehpoel's messages could be traced back to one of the company's clients, said Brad Jenkins, the company's president.

When the subpoenas came, Jenkins said that he acted personally to make the process of handing over information go quickly and smoothly: "With this one, we said, "Don't send 'em through the hoops."'

As investigators pieced together clues from every possible source after the Sept. 11 attack, it is no surprise that they would look heavily within the online world, said James X. Dempsey, the deputy director of the Center for Democracy and Technology in Washington. "All of us live in that world, including the terrorists."

Other providers of Internet services, including such giants as America Online and Earthlink, confirmed that they too have been approached with requests to help conduct online wiretaps as part of the investigations following this week's attacks. The FBI did not respond to a request for comment.

Online service providers have grown accustomed to requests for information as part of criminal investigations and civil lawsuits; an AOL spokesman, Nicholas Graham said the company deals with hundreds of the requests each year.

Some online advocates have suggested that law enforcement has gone further in the current investigation, demanding that companies attach the "Carnivore" Internet wiretap system to their networks. Carnivore has been controversial, in part, because the technology could be used to listen in on a multitude of online interactions for certain words like "hijack" or "bin Laden." But its intended use is to gather only the source and destination of a criminal suspect's e-mail.

Graham of AOL said that his company, like many of the larger service providers, does not need to attach the Carnivore system, which is formally known as DCS-1000, on its networks to provide information to the government.

Jenkins, the Sacramento Internet entrepreneur, said that his view of government surveillance has shifted -- especially in the last week. "Certainly it appears that one of the ways these guys communicate is electronically," he said. "I think everybody would say, "Let 'em watch it."'

And Xinoehpoel? Jenkins said he thinks it was a false lead -- a "goofball" who got a prediction right.

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