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The Globe & Mail
Tuesday, July 20, 1999

Police probe cyberspace in hunt for hate groups

Officers confess they don't have necessary Internet know-how

by Timothy Appleby

Toronto -- At first glance, the small Internet-training seminar resembles any other. In a cramped downtown Toronto office, a handful of students peer into computer screens as the teacher steers them through the intricacies of search engines, filter mechanisms, and firewalls on the World Wide Web.

"It's all a matter of knowing where to look", said instructor Abbee Corb -- familiar words of advice.

But this is Net surfing with a distinct difference.

The students are police officers, in this instance all from Toronto, while Ms. Corb works for the Simon Wiesenthal Centre, the long-respected Jewish human-rights group.

What really separates this seminar from others, however, is the subject material, much of which can only be described as loathsome.

In a unique project that began last month, the centre is offering police agencies specialized training in the complexities of cyberspace, with particular emphasis on hate Web sites, which appear to be sprouting like unwanted mushrooms.

Along with that comes insight into such areas of the on-line maze as the use of reverse telephone books to find people, Web sites devoted to gangs and cults, and tracking E-mail messages, a topic of particular interest to police, Ms. Corb says.

Chat rooms, too, where the cloak of anonymity allows invisible people to say anything about anyone, draw attention.

"There's a tremendous amount of interest, the apprehension is that we don't have the Internet training that's necessary. That's why we're here", said Sergeant Mark Alphonso of the city's west-central 14 Division, one of five officers spending the day at the centre.

"We've got the service for the Internet at our substation, and I don't feel we're using it to the extent that's possible."

The expertise is offered free of charge. A few dozen police officers, drawn from several Southern Ontario forces, have already taken the course, and the waiting list for the program is growing quickly.

A few years hence, such training will almost certainly be part of the police-training curriculum. For now, this is the only such program in Canada.

The Los Angeles-based Simon Wiesenthal Centre has been tracking hate groups for years. For Sol Littman, director of its Canadian arm, the rationale for sharing know-how is not complicated.

Along with many police, Mr. Littman rues the recent decision by the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission, the national broadcast regulator, to leave the Internet alone in terms of regulation.

The laws already governing hate material, pornography, and other contentious material are sufficient, the CRTC concluded.

Mr. Littman slips a CD-ROM into his computer to show why he is concerned. Up pops a dismaying array of Web sites spewing hatred toward Jews, blacks, and other minorities. Much is directed at children, with around 75 per cent of the estimated 2,100 hate sites emanating from the United States.

"So if we're going to depend on existing laws, the only people who enforce them are the police", Mr. Littman said. "But then we discover that most police forces don't have anyone on staff who is really very knowledgable about the Internet. They don't have the time, they don't have the personnel, and they don't have a place for them to train."

Not all the news is bad.

Pressure on the dozen-plus Canadian Internet providers has paid off, Mr. Littman said. Almost all have agreed to deny access to the purveyors of the worst cybersites, many of whom have had to switch to a U.S. service.

Nazi aficionado Ernst Zundel, for instance, has a Web site operated out of California.

And last week saw another victory, when the giant multinational Yahoo.com group agreed to purge its service of 39 on-line hate groups, including the Ku Klux Klan.

The hate industry is notoriously hard to quantify. A lone zealot in a basement can construct a professional-looking Web site that purports to speak for large numbers of people.

"Hate groups, militias, and other questionable groups only comprise about 2 per cent of Web sites", said Ms. Corb. "But Internet traffic doubles about every 100 days and the hate sites are becoming more and more organized on-line.

"Klan groups 10 years ago were just Klan groups, or Christian Identity groups, or Nazi groups, or skinhead groups, which were all largely independent. Now, you're seeing a sharing of ideas on-line, a cross-pollination of ideologies, and to police officers it's of growing concern because these groups are intermingling."

And what can be tracked is the number of "hits" that the increasingly sophisticated hate sites receive, in some instances amounting to several hundred a day.

Hate groups measure their success by that tally, said Mr. Littman, who has no doubt that the sites comprise a growth industry.

"When we first began five years ago, there were maybe 50 sites world-wide that we thought were significant. There are now over 2,000, and they grow every year."


Copyright © 1999 by The Globe & Mail. All Rights Reserved. Reprinted with permission.