August 14, 2003: On the night of the great blackout, as the last waves of New York City workers walked over East River bridges and those with no way home settled down to sleep in lobbies or on sidewalks, a faint computer glow emanated from an 11th-floor window of One Police Plaza in downtown Manhattan. The light was barely noticeable, filtered as it was through the smoked-glass door of a tiny room that is nestled like a matrioshka doll inside the larger space that houses the NYPD's computer-crime squad.
If you'd followed the light to the door and stood outside it on that remarkable night, you would have heard the tapping of a keyboard, the periodic sound of a wheeled office chair moving about within the small room, and the occasional mutter. If you'd gone inside, you would have found one man, Detective Mike Smith, working long after his usual daytime shift had ended, because it seemed
to him that the blackout offered a perfect opportunity to engage in a solo, marathon, 24-hour sweep for pedophiles, drug dealers, identity thieves and scam artists.
"I had backup power," Smith says.
"I had coffee. Where else would I want to be?" The 18-by-14-foot room is filled with computers, webcams, caller-ID machines, VCRs, boxes overflowing with case files, and empty Starbucks Venti cups, all the gear a cop needs when he moves into an almost unbounded universe crowded with millions of people -- and their multiple avatars -- who deal and file share and chat and date and, yes, hunt for prey in the virtual universe.
One reason the door to the cybercrime unit's little room is always closed, Detective Smith explains, is that "for all we know, there are times when I'm chatting with someone in this very building."
Over the past eight years, most major metropolitan police forces have begun fielding online investigation units.
But the breadth of Smith's criminal
investigations and the range of his online personas make him something of a virtuoso in the cyber-gumshoe world. "I am an Internet Sybil," he says. While Smith's two partners, Travis Rapp and Michael Gischner, tend to concentrate on cracking online identity-theft rings, Smith is just as happy to spend his days in the chat rooms, juggling multiple online identities, bumping into naive little girls, and coaxing information from young women, drug dealers, insecure teenage boys and, of course, no shortage of predatory men.
Smith's pedophile cases have in recent months included a prominent rabbi, an Army MP, a four-star chef and the owner of a multimillion-dollar manufacturing company -- each of whom found himself in trouble when he engaged in sexually explicit conversation, sent pornographic photos, or arranged a sexual tryst with a 9- to 17-year-old who turned out to be Detective Smith.
A 10-year veteran of the NYPD
narcotics squad, Smith retains something of the towheaded, surfer-boy good looks that no doubt proved a bit of a hindrance in his years working undercover on the streets of upper Manhattan. Smith discovered the
appeal of virtual identities in 1994, when a bad case of chicken pox
contracted from a teenager he had arrested sent him home.
"After 102 hours playing computer hockey -- I won the Stanley Cup four times -- I discovered the Internet," he says. Specifically, Smith began reading postings on electronic bulletin boards and newsgroups, and uncovered a public forum for soliciting, marketing, and smuggling illegal drugs -- a forum that was, at the time, largely unmonitored. "I came back to work telling them this is where we need to be."
Smith's online drug busts often involve impersonating men -- a gay stud boasting of all-night orgies, for example, who received offers of black-market Viagra; that case led to the arrest of a college student who was smuggling mass shipments from India. One challenging impersonation involved assuming the online identity of a real drug dealer he had just sent to prison. The masquerade culminated in the arrest of a major online supplier. "People dealing drugs on the Internet knew this guy like you or I know Derek Jeter," says Smith.
Still, Smith admits, he is at his best in virtual drag.
"Mike talks to men well," says Rapp of Smith's special role within the unit.
There are some rather serious ethical problems with such sting operations. First and foremost, a child does not normally engage in sexually explicit conversations with some old guy on the internet. So the officer is creating an artificial situation which is unrealistic. This is the very definition of entrapment. If someone hands you $50,000 and says it was stolen, but just keep it and don't tell anyone, how much can you TRULY blame the recipient for accepting the money? Sure, in a perfect world the person would immediately take the cash to their local police station and turn it in, but it does NOT make them a thief for failing to do so. Second, what this article fails to mention is how many times the conversation ends, and the target does NOT get caught - but instead has their behavior reinforced, now believing that it is possible to find a young girl or boy who might actually be interested in sex. This may have never occurred to them before being approached by the officer pretending to be a hypothetically oversexed child. How many have been excited to the point of going offline and finding a real victim after having been excited and worked up by this guy? There is a good reason why other countries forbid police to pretend to be other characters online - they create crime. That is not the purpose of an honest police force.