Officials learn ways of fighting cyber, cell phone crime

Techniques discussed at annual MACO conference

August 19, 2010|By Julie Bykowicz, The Baltimore Sun

OCEAN CITY — — Local leaders and state lawmakers on Thursday discussed ways technology such as cell phones and social-networking websites can make fighting crime in schools and prisons more difficult.

Attendees of the four-day summer conference of the Maryland Association of Counties may also choose from sessions on lessons learned from this winter's snowstorms, on storm water drainage and on the public health threat posed by hoarding. Gov. Martin O'Malley will address the group Saturday morning.

Michael Sanderson, executive director of the Maryland Association of Counties, said about 500 government workers, officials and family members attended this year, fewer than in previous years.

The traditional receptions have been scaled back, too, in a sluggish economy. For the second year in a row, O'Malley canceled his official party, and Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake chose not to have an event, breaking from the tradition of her predecessor, Sheila Dixon.

At a session on school safety, gang and bullying experts discussed how cell phones and the Internet have made it easier to target kids. Andrea Alexander, a student behavior and school climate specialist with the Maryland Department of Education, warned of "sexting" and a new phenomenon: "sextortion."

The former, well known to school administrators and parents, involves risqué cell phone photos that young people share with one another, sometimes unintentionally.

That behavior, she said, has spawned "sextortion," in which a child predator will contact a young person who has posted risqué photos on a social networking site, such as Facebook, and demand more photos. The predator will threaten to send the original photo to the youngster's parents or teachers if the demand for more material is not met.

John Fredericksen, superintendent of Wicomico County schools, said administrators had found it difficult to combat cybercrimes and online bullying. He said the only effective strategy appeared to be confiscating phones and other devices.

The panelists also discussed a safe-schools act passed by the legislature this year that aims to improve communication between school officials and law-enforcement officers about gang activity.

Leslie Knapp Jr., an associate director of the Maryland Association of Counties — who stood in for Baltimore State's Attorney Patricia C. Jessamy, who bowed out, reportedly because of a scheduling conflict — said Maryland officials had documented 600 gangs with 11,000 members, including 4,000 who are behind bars.

Cell-phone-sniffing dogs were discussed during the panel on improving intelligence within prisons. Division of Correction Commissioner J. Michael Stouffer said the state's prisons have "turned the corner" and are seizing more cell phones that gang members use to coordinate drug deals and even killings while locked up.

Officials have captured phones the size of wristwatches and now have a forensic lab where technicians can extract phone numbers and other information from the captured phones.

But the best solution, Stouffer said, would be for Congress to pass legislation allowing prisons to jam cell frequencies.

"I'd like to just shut them down," he said.

Baltimore Sun reporter Annie Linskey contributed to this article.

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