Hollywood's 'Untraceable': Fact or fiction?

Former FBI Special Agent Ernest E.J. Hilbert II breaks down how the premise of "Untraceable" is not so far-fetched.

Former FBI Special Agent Ernest E.J. Hilbert II learned a lot about cybercrime before signing on to be the director of security enforcement at MySpace.com and when asked to look over a Hollywood script about cybercrime, he took on the challenge. The ironic thing, he points out, is that the fiction portrayed in the film (opening Jan. 25) is not so different from the facts he encountered on the job. Hilbert recently talked with Network World Senior Editor Denise Dubie about his past in law enforcement, his participation in "Untraceable" and why Americans need to become more aware of the dangers that lurk in cyberspace.

How did you get your start with the cybercrime division of the FBI?

I did my training in Quantico and in December 1999 I was assigned to the Santa Ana RA [resident agency] in the Los Angeles area FBI field office. Within a month, I got a call that someone had had their computer system hacked and 15,000 credit cards had been stolen. That turned into a six-year continually evolving case [Alexey Ivanov/Invita case] but we got those guys. Then that evolved into more and more and I fell into the cyber realm from there.

Did you have any background with technology?

I did some tech writing before joining the FBI, but I have had computers since I was about 12. I had a Commodore 64 and I bought my first Apple IIe when I was 16 years old. I programmed in BASIC, not Visual Basic, but whatever skills I may have had I lost in terms of the tech side of things. I just understand how it works, and I have a grasp of it. But if you asked me to sit down and hack into somebody's computer it would take me four times longer than half the guys I went after, as well as some of the people I worked with at the FBI.

My last two years with the bureau I was asked to move over to the counter-terrorism realm and work that same cyber aspect of the cyber-terrorists groups because all their stuff is going online now as well. I picked up the Adam Gadahn case, a man from Orange County [Calif.]. He went overseas and is now a spokesman for Al Qaeda; we charged him with treason ... the first time in 54 years the government has used treason charges and it had to be approved by the White House.

How did you get involved with technical consulting on movies such as "Untraceable"?

I was getting frustrated with the 24/7 of the job, I have three children and the politics of the government were getting to me so I saw an opportunity to leave by going to a consulting firm. The FBI has a media program that is manned with real, gun-toting agents, and a buddy of mine was in charge of media outreach. The producers of "Untraceable" came to the FBI to use the name and gain some insight. And the FBI does offer insight and there is no fee involved. My buddy, a sniper for the S.W.A.T team, called me up with a couple of scripts -- "Die Hard 4" was the first but the timing worked out that they were unable to use any of my input -- and "Untraceable" was the next.

Why did they want to use your insight in particular? Were there specific cases you tackled?

The FBI has something called the Citizen's Academy, in which we host different nights for various types of crimes to educate people as to why the FBI is involved with them. I was asked to present on cybercrime and we had someone else do crimes against children, which is child pornography and pedophilia situations. "Untraceable's" Director Gregory Hoblit and the producers were invited that night.

Does the FBI distinguish cybercriminals from child predators?

Child predators have been around for as long as I have been online, since 1992, and as soon as you had the opportunity for social connections you had these individuals who saw this as a chance to reach out to their groups. They don't necessarily have any specific technical expertise or cyber skills that are criminal, but they use the Internet to reach out. We've always had these guys; they've always done it. They don't have to be technically savvy. Mostly they are just chatting and drawing people in.

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Denise Dubie

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