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.

I haven't seen the entire film, but have watched the trailers and found the talk of networking technology very interesting. Do you feel the finished movie realistically depicts how law enforcement uses such technology to track down cyber criminals?

[Greg] Hoblit's father was an FBI agent so he wanted to hear what I had to say about the script. I basically told them it was a plausible idea but that they would have to change a lot of stuff to be technically accurate. They asked me to work with the writer and it was fun, but it happened to coincide with my leaving the bureau. They did everything they could to make it as realistic as possible and squeeze it into under two hours. The script calls for a lot more, but the truth is it is really boring to watch agents sit behind a computer and type away and run whois lookups, run trace routes and ping things. No one is going to want to watch that.

It seems this movie is being marketed to technical people, but that could be a double-edged sword if they work to point out inaccuracies. Have you heard any comments saying the technology portrayed or how it's used in the story is wrong?

One of the biggest complaints of people with regard to this movie in terms of the technology is that obviously the writers and technical consultant -- which is me -- don't know how a DNS system works and how you can get a domain shut down. And that's not true. There is an assumption that because the FBI says to do something that somebody is going to jump through the hoops and do it. It doesn't happen that way. It's a government agency, but cybercrime in many cases is business and there is a lot of money involved, major money.

What can the FBI realistically do to shut down a domain today?

Last year when they wrote the script and started shooting the film it probably did take at least one week -- and maybe in some cases two weeks -- to get a domain name blacklisted if it was based in the U.S. Nowadays it could take as little as 24 hours depending on the context and so on. Does that make this story any less plausible? No. Take out the fact that it utilizes a domain name and instead the information that is being shared is through a series of IP addresses that pop up. And those IP addresses are just mirrors of the original IP address. I can blacklist an IP address or at least black hole it -- if it is in the U.S. But if it is international, it's not the same rules.

What can our government do to stop hackers or cybercriminals attacking from outside the country?

I spent a lot of time in Eastern Europe, and when we first went over it wasn't illegal for anyone to hack outside of the Ukraine, per se. The Chinese -- I don't see them helping us out a great deal. I mean they might, don't get me wrong, but it's a sovereign government and they don't have to immediately comply. All these naysayers pointing out the things we can do are partly right. But it takes time and in that time frame, this bad guy in the movie could do what he's doing. That's when someone like me working as an agent would be using tools from companies such as DNSstuff or Domain Tools or even call someone directly, asking for help to track or stop the bad guy. And in most cases individuals or governments will help as much as they legally can; the laws haven't caught up with the crimes.

What do you think needs to happen in terms of law enforcement?

I hope that lawyers and judges will see this film and ask themselves, "Is this real?" We need to do something about the laws with regard to these crimes. Even if the movie just sparks a discussion as to how far cybercriminals can go before law enforcement can step in. I want lawmakers to realize that this can happen and then force laws into place.

The movie has an element of voyeurism in how the murderer sets up the Web site to work in such a way that when visitors click on the site, it speeds the death of the victim. What do you think of the online cultural phenomenon that is driving social networking sites -- some of which put people at risk?

We are an incredibly voyeuristic society. We still have this false sense of anonymity that says when I am on the Internet nobody will know what I am doing. Originally the only way to really make money off the Internet was with pornography; when it started out, it was like 70% adult porn for the most part. People believed they could hide away and conduct their business whatever it was, but now we have moved into the social networking world -- the MySpaces, the Facebooks, the YouTubes, the Linkedins -- and about 40 new sites.

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Denise Dubie

Network World
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