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Publication Date: Friday, July 05, 2002

City staffer's tip prompts FBI cyber-terrorism probe City staffer's tip prompts FBI cyber-terrorism probe (July 05, 2002)

Web master's alert of Middle Eastern visitors prompts national security concern Web master's alert of Middle Eastern visitors prompts national security concern (July 05, 2002)

By Bill D'Agostino and Candice Shih

A tip from the coordinator of Mountain View's Web site was the impetus for a high priority FBI probe into how terrorists might use information on Web sites to plan attacks against Americans, the police department reported last week.

Last August, Web site Coordinator Laura Wigod noticed Middle Eastern web surfers on the city's site and since she was then studying Farsi, the most widely spoken Persian language, she was "very excited."

But after Sept. 11, those same visitors who initially thrilled Wigod suddenly seemed potentially sinister. She passed the information along to the Mountain View police department, which shared the information with the FBI through a regional task force formed to battle technology crimes.

Eventually, the FBI uncovered a pattern of computer users from countries known to harbor terrorists looking at 30 local municipalities' Web sites.

The FBI is now concerned that Al Qaeda operatives might try to use information on those sites to disturb water systems or disrupt 911 calls during an emergency, according to a story in the Washington Post that quoted a Department of Defense document. . After the suspicious visitors were discovered, police asked the city department heads to consider removing any sensitive information.

The city removed data about the police beat structures, fire department operations and city infrastructure, according to Council member Rosemary Stasek.

In removing the information, Stasek said the city did a good job of balancing residents' access to city information with the dire possibility that terrorists might use the data to learn, for example, how to spread diseases -- such as botulism -- through the water supply.

"If there is a taxpayer so interested in the design of our reservoir, I'd be happy to give them a tour of it," Stasek said.

Still, even back when the probe began in October, Wigod, who has run the city's Web site for two years, felt the city was protected from terrorist harm. "I honestly didn't feel less safe after this than on Sept. 12."

But she got a secret thrill knowing that the information she discovered might be used to thwart terrorist attacks.

Wigod's interest in Middle Eastern culture dates back to when she was a senior in high school in New Jersey. She got to know an Iranian family living next door to the school.

In 2000, Wigod began searching for a place to study Farsi in the hopes of one day being able to travel to Iran.. That year, President Bill Clinton lifted economic sanctions against Iran opening the possibilities of travel by American attaches. "As luck would have it, the Mountain View-Los Adult Adult Ed school on Moffett Boulevard started offering it in the fall of 2000," she noted.

Wigod described Farsi as "the lovechild of Arabic and French, with all the masculine strength of Arabic and the feminine sensuality of French."

In the two years that Wigod has held the reigns to the city's Web site, the number of visitors has increased from 3,000 unique visitors a month to 15,000.

International visitors make up a small portion of that total number, and the ones from countries potentially harboring terrorists are even fewer, Wigod noted.

Eventually, Wigod is aiming to get 35,000 new visitors a month. With all the media attention on Mountain View last week, the Web site is likely to get that number of visitors this month. But, she said, "it's not going to count."

After the news broke in the Post, Mountain View's police department was inundated by media requests. In a single day Chris Hsiung -- the lead officer on the case -- was interviewed by reporters from CNN, 60 Minutes, and the BBC, among others.

Despite all the interviews, the seven-year veteran of the department was -- at the FBI's request -- tight-lipped about what info on the Website was looked at by the potential terrorists and how that data might be used to cause harm. "They're locking people up on the East Coast for leaking information and this is a hot potato right now," he said.

Although she was the initial informant, Wigod has never -- and likely will never -- learn how her tip is actually utilized by the FBI. "The information goes up but not down," she said. "Although, I've been burning with curiosity."
The city of Mountain View's Web site is www.ci.mtnview.ca.us.


 

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