Copyright 1993 The Chronicle Publishing Co.
The San Francisco Chronicle
DECEMBER 31, 1993, FRIDAY, FINAL EDITION
SECTION: NEWS; Pg. A1
LENGTH: 800 words
HEADLINE: Computer Net Used to Solicit Bombing Clues FBI circulates a plea for tips on electronic bulletin
BYLINE: Bill Wallace, Chronicle Staff Writer
The heading of the December 23 Internet message was an eye- catcher, even for the advanced computer users who regularly scan the ''World Wide Web'' bulletin board:
''Subject: Information from the FBI UNABOM Task Force. . . .''
The message that followed was essentially a cyberspace press release from the bureau containing information about the UNABOM case, a federal investigation into a bizarre series of mail bombings during the past 15 years that has killed one person and injured 23 others.
The message marks the emergence of a brand new information- gathering tool for federal investigators -- the ''information superhighway'' that links millions of computer users around the world. The UNABOM case is believed to be the first probe in which federal agents have used the Internet as a crime-stopper's aid.
''One of the things I was interested in when we first did this was whether or not Internet had been used in this way before,'' said FBI Inspector George Clow, a supervising investigator in the case. ''To the best of our knowledge, it has not. There may have been some limited efforts to use the system in other cases, but nothing on a sustained national basis like this.''
The Internet is a former military communications web that now serves more than 20 million users around the word. Initially, the network primarily served academics, but more recently it has become a general-purpose communications system available to many home and business computer users through such commercial computer services as CompuServe and America Online.
The FBI said the Internet is primarily being used to disseminate press release information about the UNABOM bombings. The December 23 notice, for example, recapped information that had already been released to newspapers and television and radio outlets.
The message, from FBI agent Bill Tafoya, tells Internet users: ''You are not being asked to place yourself in harm's way,'' but it asks them ''to come forward if you have information that might help identify, arrest and convict the person(s) responsible for these bombings.''
It gives a toll-free telephone number for the task force -- (800) 701-2662 -- and includes the address for the task force's Internet electronic mailbox.
WHY NETWORK WAS USED
According to the text of the December 23 Internet message, the FBI sent its inquiry onto the computer network for two reasons:
''First, the Internet is another medium that enables us to reach as wide an audience as possible -- to 'spread the word.' Second, Internet users are precisely the type of individuals that, to date, have been recipients of explosive devices attributed to UNABOM: scholars and researchers.''
In addition to posting notifications about the case, the Internet system has been used to disseminate information about the handling of materials that may be bombs.
''Basically, it (Internet) is just another media form that has been used to make this information available to as many people as possible,'' said Alec Deacon, a NASA employee who set up the UNABOM electronic mailbox on a space agency computer at Moffett Field in Mountain View.
''The information has been on the TV and the radio, and it has been in the papers. Now it is on 'the net,' too.''
Law enforcement sources say the UNABOM investigation is the perfect place to experiment with the technique because the bombing targets have consisted largely of such organizations as universities and computer companies where a lot of people are computer-literate.
The most recent blast injured a Yale University professor when he attempted to open a package June 26. A day earlier, a similar explosion injured a University of California at San Francisco genetics professor.
Other educational institutions that have been the targets of bombings linked to the UNABOM case include the University of California at Berkeley, Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill., the University of Utah and the University of Michigan.
PHONE CONTACT PREFERRED
Although FBI messages posted on the network include the electronic mailbox code, Deacon said the bureau ''would prefer to have people with information about the case go through the 800-line rather than using Internet itself.''
The FBI has offered a $ 1 million reward for information leading to conviction of whoever sent the bombs.
''We really feel there is somebody out there who knows this guy and who will realize it if they give it a little thought,'' said Clow. ''It could be somebody who just happens to have run across him. It could be somebody who has actually participated in the crimes.
''We're not concerned about whether we get a large volume of calls,'' he said. ''We just want to get the right call.'' LANGUAGE: ENGLISH LOAD-DATE: December 31, 1993