The ECTF Comes of Age: An Interview with Bob Weaver of the USSS

by rthieme on November 2, 2001

Bob Weaver and the Electronic Crimes Task Force

November 2001

BOB WEAVER

From the rubble of the twin towers, the Electronic Crimes Task Force chief rededicates himself to “serving the servers.”

BY RICHARD THIEME

The events U.S. Secret Service agent Bob Weaver witnessed from his office in the World Trade Center on Sept. 11 rekindled his patriotism, devotion to public service and dedication to his job–protecting cyberspace. He knows the mission of his Electronic Crimes Task Force takes on even greater importance as the U.S. wages war on terrorism.

“I have spoken to the young people here, to the members of our community who have responded with such heroism, and I know this will be our finest hour. There never was a silver bullet or an easy answer to any of this. We are fighting back.”

Before the Sept. 11 attack, Weaver spoke easily and fluently about how the Task Force became a model for law enforcement in the information age.

After Sept. 11, he spoke slowly, deliberately, with obvious grief, every word heavy with the weight of what he had seen and experienced in his offices on the 10th floor of 7 World Trade Center, the building across the street from the twin towers. One of his colleagues died, and his offices disappeared when his building collapsed later that day.

He will never forget the horrors that unfolded before his eyes. But they renewed the commitment to public service that he made 25 years ago.

Weaver is the assistant special agent in charge of the U.S. Secret Service New York Field Office, which includes the Electronic Crimes Task Force. He’s a down-to-earth guy with plenty of street smarts. In his case, the street is Wall Street.

“The Secret Service has always been known for protecting and serving,” he said. “Now we’re becoming known for ‘serving the servers.'”

The Task Force officially began in 1995 when the telecommunications industry solicited the Secret Service’s help in addressing cybercrime. It has grown to include 45 federal, state and local law enforcement agencies, 100 private companies and 12 universities.

Weaver attributes the Task Force’s rapid recovery from the terrorist attack to how they built the organization and their approach to law enforcement.

“The pre-incident response planning, the awareness and education–all of these things that kicked into place–prevention, detection, response, the risk management components, all of those things that we believe in and did, those were exactly the things that paid dividends in our darkest hour,” he says.

Before most people knew what criminal hacking was, Weaver was part of a computer crime squad that fought electronic crime. In 1990, the hacker group Masters of Deception broke into CitiBank using a 9800 baud modem. Weaver’s unit tracked and captured the cybergang with a traditional wiretap. His work on that and other cases spurred him to develop a holistic approach that went far beyond traditional law enforcement.

“We didn’t think that law enforcement should be focused exclusively on arrests, prosecutions and convictions,” he says. “Financial institutions were our primary ‘customers,’ and consumer confidence in them was eroding. We wanted to have a real impact on the entire community.

“We cut a path ahead of the pack because hackers were ripping into the underbelly of financial institutions,” he adds. “We began information sharing to help the industry learn how to protect itself. That partnership is a mutually beneficial relationship. That’s a much better approach than just prevention-detection.”

An early case illustrates that partnership.

The Task Force did the first court-approved e-mail wiretap in the U.S. in 1995 after AT&T told the Secret Service someone was selling electronic eavesdropping equipment on the Internet. The Task Force tapped the suspect’s CompuServe e-mail account. Posing as buyers, agents bought a device that could be used for eavesdropping or stealing phone service. The suspect, Bernard Bowitz, was in Hong Kong but couldn’t be extradited under the law for computer fraud or telecommunications fraud. So the Task Force extradited him–and convicted him–on money laundering charges instead.

“We had to be creative back then and seek out the appropriate law that would give this guy what he deserves,” Weaver says.

Weaver’s method of operation includes everything you’d expect in a sophisticated law enforcement outfit, including advanced forensics. But Weaver adds layers of education, training and relationship-building to his crime-fighting arsenal. For example, the Task Force teaches business courses to its agents, so they can talk with executives on their own terms. All this fosters a sense of community for battling cybercrime.

Now that community–and the country–will fight that battle in a profoundly changed world.

“The impact on this community…” Weaver’s voice trails off, “the way this community banded together in this attack against humanity was inspirational on all fronts.”

“Before I would have said, ‘Who calls you back when you need help?’ That’s what it came down to. You go where you’re best served. For a lot of people, we had become the go-to guys.

“Now, after the attack, that’s doubly true. I am rededicated to government service and public service. We have been robbed. The next generation has in some way been changed. They have lost an opportunity, a piece of their youth, their innocence. Their world is changed forever. All the reasons we do public service are now once again extremely important.”

Copyright © 2001 Information Security, a division of TruSecure Corporation

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