FAIRMONT, W.Va. (AP) _ As thousands of leads poured into the FBI after last month's terrorist attacks, the bureau converted its Internet Fraud Complaint Center into a repository for tips received by e-mail.
The complaint center had the sophisticated data network to handle the task. To make the conversion, it needed additional hardware and data storage capacity, but had no time to issue a requisition order.
Instead, it turned to local businesses, which responded with equipment donations worth millions of dollars, including one piece of hardware worth $2.5 million from a donor the bureau would not identify. Donations have allowed the center to process more than 117,000 e-mailed tips.
``The private sector provided a phenomenal response,'' said Dick Johnston, director of the National White Collar Crime Center, a Justice Department agency that runs the complaint center along with the FBI. ``We were able to make the technological switch in two hours. Without local industry help, that would have been impossible.''
The contributions are an example of a deepening relationship between federal law enforcement agencies and private businesses, particularly in fighting computer crime.
``Since the events of September 11, the walls between public agencies and the private sector have been coming down very quickly,'' said Dan Larkin, supervisory special agent with the FBI Pittsburgh office. ``This proves to me that maybe industry fears of sharing information with the government are falling.''
The FBI has been working for years to enlist businesses in its fight against cybercrime. In 1996 it started a program called InfraGard, in which more than 500 businesses work with the FBI's 56 U.S. field offices to protect computer systems from both cyber and physical attacks.
Telecom companies have long had a wary relationship with the FBI, in part based on fears of violating customer privacy. Larkin said that's changing in Pennsylvania and West Virginia. Internet service providers have been calling daily with tips and requests for more information.
``A lot of high-tech companies have been concerned about a perception that they'll be associated with Big Brother,'' Larkin said. ``But now there's a sense of urgency to get information into the right hands. For the right reasons, companies are saying we can cooperate without disregarding privacy concerns.''
Federal law prohibits Internet service providers from turning over subscriber records to law enforcement officials without a court order or subscriber consent.
Michael Carroll, a cyberlaw expert at Villanova University near Philadelphia, said subscriber evidence obtained without a warrant could raise constitutional questions and potentially be excluded by courts.