Sunday, November 13, 2005

Conferences on Economic Crime and Freedom

In the past week I attended two conferences--one work-related conference, the National White Collar Crime Center (NW3C)'s Economic Crime Summit in Phoenix on November 8-9, and one personal-interest conference, the Freedom Summit in Phoenix on November 12-13.

I had thought after attending the first conference to write a blog entry comparing and contrasting them, but after attending the second conference I realized several of the talks there merit full entries of their own. Einzige also attended the Freedom Summit, so we will both have comments on parts of it.

The Economic Crime Summit was put on by NW3C, a private organization that is funded by Congress and run mostly by former law enforcement personnel. It's an example of one of many private organizations that exists in partnership with the public sector which seem to have proliferated lately for various reasons. Unfortunately, I believe some of the reasons include to be exempt from public disclosure (such as Freedom of Information Act requests) and to engage in activity which might be difficult for public sector agencies to do on their own.

The Economic Crime Summit was mostly attended by law enforcement personnel from Arizona and elsewhere, representing federal, state, and local agencies as well as a small number of private companies, mostly banks. The main subject matter was economic crimes, with an emphasis on identity theft and fraud on the Internet and directed against the elderly. As I'm in charge of information security for a global telecommunications company, I have an interest in finding ways to prevent fraud and to help law enforcement catch such criminals.

The Summit began in a large banquet audience of perhaps 300. To my surprise, everyone was asked to stand for the presentation of colors, the singing of the national anthem, and an ecumenical prayer by Chaplain Rabbi Robert Kravitz of the Phoenix Police Department. I felt like I had stepped into a military/religious alternative universe, and found Kravitz' comment in his prayer about supporting the U.S. Constitution rather ironic. As NW3C is a private organization this was likely not an actual violation of the First Amendment, but since it is Congressionally funded and most of the presenters were from government agencies, it felt very much like a violation to me. I wonder if this kind of disregard for the sensibilities of nonbelievers is as common in law enforcement as it is in the military (with the Air Force Academy's promotion of evangelical Christianity a particularly egregious example).

Arizona Attorney General Terry Goddard showed up and gave a short talk after the invocation, which I thought was well-timed. Other morning breakfast banquet speakers included Arizona Department of Public Safety Director (and former Pinal County Sheriff) Roger Vanderpool, who also included a reference to God at the end of his talk, John Vincent of the Rocky Mountain Information Network, and Assistant Chief of Police for the Phoenix PD, Kevin Robinson.

Fortunately, there was no further endorsement of the supernatural in any of the individual presentations I attended. F/Sgt. Charles Cohen of the Indiana State Police gave an excellent presentation on "Successful Investigation of Skilled Offenders" which included information on what information is available from FinCen (currency transaction reports, CTRs, for transactions over $10,000 are available to law enforcement without a subpoena; casino reports; foreign bank account information; Form 8300 reports of large purchases made with cash--these were expanded under the USA PATRIOT Act to include such things as automobile purchases, as I learned firsthand when I bought my last car with cash).

I also attended talks on identity theft and electronic crime by a U.S. Postal Inspector, a U.S. Secret Service Agent, and a joint presentation by a Special Agent from the Office of the Inspector General of the Department of Education (I didn't realize such an office existed--she investigates student loan-related fraud issues) and an Assistant U.S. Attorney. One of the things that struck me is how seemingly uncoordinated many of these federal law enforcement activities are, with the exception of some cooperation between the FBI and U.S. Secret Service (the latter of which has now moved from the Department of Treasury to the Department of Homeland Security). The use of private organizations like NW3C and others that were present with exhibits at the conference is probably in part due to actions by individuals trying to solve problems that arise from such separate silos.

By contrast, the Freedom Summit did not begin with a prayer but with a debate on the existence of God between atheist George Smith and Mesa pastor Eric Lounsbery. I did not attend the debate, which took place on Friday night, as I feared it would not go as an Internet Infidels-sponsored debate would go. From what I heard, it was as bad as I feared, with Smith unprepared to address Lounsbery's shotgunned series of arguments. (In a debate format, dropping the opponent's arguments is a way to lose.) The public debate format is not a great format for seriously addressing any intellectual issue (written materials are essential for any real depth), but it can be done well if the participants are properly prepared and skilled and experienced at working in the debate format.

The Freedom Summit was an interesting and entertaining mix of speakers from a variety of fields on topics relevant to personal freedom, with a few well beyond the fringe (which I'll discuss individually). Especially good talks were given by David Friedman (on market failure), Chris Heward (on failings of government-sponsored science), Karen Kwiatkowski (on the war on Iraq), and Jim Bovard (on the Bush Administration and the use of the threat of terrorism to trample on civil liberties).

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