Rakesh Magan's criminal career was nothing spectacular--in an insurance scam, he set fire to his Salt Lake City grocery store, and then fled the state when police filed arson charges. But his capture earlier this year was altogether original: Magan became the first fugitive nailed by the FBI's Web site, after a customer in Magan's newshop in Massachusetts recognized him from the 10 Most Wanted List posted on the FBI's home page.
Magan's capture belies what is otherwise the Internet's well-earned reputation for being an unpoliceable no-man's-land. After years of publicity about renegade hackers and child-porn rings, the Web has largely been seen, in the words of Bill Gates, as "a lawless environment...that no government will touch." That reputation was only exacerbated when the Supreme Court rejected the Communications Decency Act, which clumsily aimed to curb the obscenity--whatever that is--so rampant on the Net.
Yet despite its reputation, the Internet is increasingly becoming a hunting ground for law enforcement, with vigilantes prowling for cyber pornographers and the feds--all sorts of feds--after fugitives of all stripes. Along withthe FBI--whose site became front-page news during the hunt for Andrew Cunanan (whose photo is now slapped with a red "FOUND DEAD" banner)--law enforcement agencies from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms to the U.S. marshals are making their manhunts more interactive by posting profiles of their most wanted on the Web.
The mug shots are proving so popular that there's an entire site devoted to them. The World's Most Wanted http://www.mostwanted.com provides a panoply of crime, with mugs of rapists from Alabama, bail jumpers from Arizona, and deadbeat dads from all over. The nonprofit site collects the rogues for its gallery from bounty hunters andpolice departments in 46 states.
"I got tired of hearing all the bad stuff aboutthe Internet," says Most Wanted creator Dave Farrell. "My idea was to create one single site agencies can use to provide information, and people can come to and find something." Farrell, a reserve deputy sheriff in Bernalillo County, New Mexico, who also runs a computer consulting company, says his site does bring them in: a Nevada deputy browsing the site came across a man wanted by police in Wisconsin--who just happened to be sitting in his jail.
In New York, the state police also favor the wanted-poster model--most of the Web site is dedicated to lineups of fugitives and missing children. But the site also has offerings that seem experimental, like the graphic photo of an unidentified corpse found upstate in 1979--just in case anybody might recognize her after 18 years.
The NYPD Web site makes at least a token gesture at recognizing its online audience. One page asks visitors whether they have "chatted"with Oliver Jovanovic, the alleged cyberstalker arrested last December for the rape and torture of a woman he met in an AOL chat room.
Eventually, the NYPD http://www.ci.nyc.ny.us/ html/nypd promises its site will link New Yorkers to what's going on in their precincts and neighborhoods. But for now, the mug shots--broken down by borough--are the main attraction. There are dozens of them: murderers, rapists, thieves. And though the choices at times seem random (is there really no one worse than Brooklyn's David Markowitz, who allegedly punched someone in the face with brass knuckles three years ago?), the idea that these criminals are walking our streets is, admittedly, disturbing.
Alongside those who use the Internet to cleanup the real world, there are those for whom it's a beat to be trolled for illegal activity. Federal and local agencies have ongoing child-porn stings, and the FBI has created a computer-crimes unit dedicated to the pursuit of hackers and scam artists. "It's like the wild, wild West out there," says detective Michael Geraghty, who works for the computer-crimes unit of the New Jersey State Police and is president of the High Technology Crime Investigations Association's Northeast chapter. "We see everything from rapes, murder, drug deals, to hacking and child porn. Everything you read about that's happening on the street is happening online."
While the Jovanovics make the big headlines, Geraghty says "there's a lot more out there than what you hear about," especially corporate crime. When a hacker breaks a company's security, for instance, the HTCIA, a coalition of police and private companies, is very cautious not to publicize the breach, for fear of inviting more spelunkers--or panicking investors. "We try to treat them almost like a rape victim," says Geraghty. "We'll protect their identity."
For many Internet aficionados--a notoriously antiauthoritarian lot--the thought of an increased police presence is distressing. Geraghty is familiar with the complaint, and assures that his unit, for one, actively avoids anything that resembles a "witch-hunt." But even if they wantedto go after the little guy, there's no way, with the technology still new to police and resources what they are, that cops can effectively pursue what Geraghty calls a "surf and protect" strategy. "There's a lot going on out there, and there's no way we can keep on top of it all," says Geraghty. "Until law enforcement gets further educated in this, we're always going to be behind the eightball."
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you’ll never miss Village Voice's biggest stories.