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.

What do you think is driving this social networking craze and why do people care about other people's personal business?

Basically both kids and adults are looking to obtain fame by posting stuff about themselves online. It's the old story of the train wreck: No one wants to look but they can't help themselves. In essence it's the nature of being American, because we have the freedom of speech, freedom of practice and freedom of choice to do these things. You wouldn't have Microsoft putting however many millions [of dollars] it put into Facebook if this trend wasn't going to continue. People don't realize this information they are posting about themselves will be there forever. It doesn't go away; there is not statue of limitations.

In "Untraceable," even the lead character -- an FBI agent played by Diane Lane -- is unable to remain anonymous; the bad guy tracks her down. How do law enforcement agents protect themselves from the cybercriminals they pursue?

We don't do this job because we want the bad guys to know who we are or know where our family is. And often the press is respectful to law enforcement and is careful to not name specific agents. But in the cyber realm, someone like me that does presentations for the FBI would have bad guys latch onto them whether I was on their case or not. My information is out there, but I have taken the appropriate steps. I don't live in fear, but law enforcement in general, we pay attention, we are more aware and we see things that others don't. We have a heightened sense of awareness.

Do you feel how the murderer found the agent's home address in the movie is plausible?

Absolutely. It's not a spoiler because it's in the trailer, but it is not an external attack. It is through her daughter via a video game. And that is a very simple method. In the download world, you download a video game or get a hold of some bad software with a virus underneath or a Trojan buried inside of it, and you're vulnerable. It can happen -- it does happen.

Any other elements in the movie the naysayers may call you and the writers out on as being technically inaccurate?

The IP addresses in the movie are not real, for obvious reasons. You can't use real IP addresses, because it will point to real IP addresses. It's similar to the 555 area code for phone numbers in movies. But I know that element will get hammered on. Some of the software they utilized in the film, they worked with companies to create the imagery for movie purposes. In terms of law enforcement, they take down people a lot quicker than would be possible, but it's because it's a movie. Do you really want to see a guy drafting an affidavit, going to court and talking to judges? No. It's accelerated and compressed. But the way they go about doing it, such as trace routes, that's exactly what the FBI would do.

Does the movie portray the victims as at fault for their own downfall? Do they act irresponsibility on the Internet, for example?

Without revealing too much or spoiling the movie, it's really about understanding what you are dealing with and realizing there are consequences for your actions and then going forward. If you don't know what the consequences are going to be, then I suggest don't take that action. For instance, in this movie, the guys that get picked up and get murdered get socially engineered into doing it by the murderer -- right down to some guys who should know better.

What do you hope the public takes away from the film and others that portray cybercrime?

I hope everyone understands the Internet is not going away and for the most part, it's virtually impossible to regulate the Internet. Even the Chinese, who claim they can block traffic, might actually be blocking 40% of it. If people take the general approach that whatever they do in the real world is the same thing they would do on the Internet, then there would be a lot more protection in place. If you are walking down the street and there is a dark alley, would you run down it in the worst part of the city? Probably not. But then you get an e-mail that someone sends you with a little link that says you should go here, and you click on it. Not a smart move. I don't want people to be in fear. I use the Internet daily, but I pay attention. It's just an awareness.

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Denise Dubie

Network World
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