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Originally published July 10, 2010 at 7:35 PM | Page modified July 10, 2010 at 10:34 PM

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'Barefoot Bandit' Harris-Moore may have been nothing without the Internet

Without the Internet, Colton Harris-Moore might have just been another small-town kid who got into trouble and stayed local.

Seattle Times staff reporter

Without the Internet, Colton Harris-Moore might have just been another small-town kid who got into trouble and stayed local.

But, as his mom, Pam Kohler, said on Thursday from her Camano Island mobile home that's adorned with a "No Trespassing" sign, "He carries a laptop, for Christ's sakes!"

The Internet made the "Barefoot Bandit" a worldwide cult hero — a Colton Harris-Moore Facebook page lists more than 56,000 followers.

And, say cybersecurity experts, it has helped him dodge local law enforcement as he has journeyed by cars, boats and planes from the Pacific Northwest to the Midwest and, supposedly, this past week, to the Bahamas.

"We've got geeks, and we've got cops, but geek cops are very difficult to find," says Assistant Professor Jeff Ingalsbe, of the Center for Cyber Security and Intelligence Studies at the University of Detroit Mercy.

He says that at his school, "right across the hall," there is a criminal-justice program that teaches cops about tracking criminals in the digital age.

"They are great people with 20 years' experience tracking somebody. But tracking somebody on the Internet, they have zero experience," says Ingalsbe.

In movies and television shows like "24," we're used to thrillers in which tech-savvy government agents can tap into anybody's cellphone and computers in seconds and use street cameras and drones to focus on bad guys.

And it can happen.

Says Dan Shoemaker, a colleague of Ingalsbe, and director for that school's Centre for Assurance Studies, which is affiliated with the National Security Agency, "If the NSA wants to find you, they can."

But ...

"There's gotta be some reason for it," he says. "Conventional criminals are not on their radar. They'd have to have some motivation to track down some 19-year-old kid with a Facebook page."

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The FBI also sounds less than enthusiastic about tracking Harris-Moore.

Says Steven Dean, the assistant agent in charge of the agency's Seattle office, "Colton Harris-Moore was a regional problem who we didn't pay much attention to because we have a lot more important things to do.

"But there are federal charges now, and the dollar amount of the damages he appears to be responsible for is ramping up."

Dean says priorities for the FBI are "banks failing and bank robberies and other things. Colton ... Harris-Moore is not one of them. He ... is just something we're going to have to do, I guess."

Shoemaker says it's a generational thing between most cops and criminals using the Internet, even for relatively young, 40-some-year-old cops.

"They went to school before the Internet was popular," says Shoemaker.

These cops, he says, are dealing with criminals at least half their age who don't need a formal education to look for "a little hole" in the Internet "to squeeze through. ... All you gotta do is be clever."

And, says Shoemaker, Harris-Moore certainly appears to be clever.

It wouldn't have taken much cleverness on Harris-Moore's part, just spending time with Google.

Type in, "learn to fly manual" and up pops "Airfreddy's Guide on Learning To Fly," downloadable for only $39.95, "plus $220 in Bonuses Free!!"

Harris-Moore is a suspect in the thefts of at least five small airplanes.

Type in "anonymizing e-mail," and a thorough Wikipedia entry will explain it all.

Type in "Bahamas," and within minutes you can find out about that Caribbean country, and find that of all that country's mostly black islands, it is only Great Abaco Island that has a sizable white population (going back to 1776, when loyalists to the British crown decided to leave America after the Declaration of Independence and settle in Abaco).

And you would find that this past week, Abaco, where Harris-Moore supposedly crash-landed in a marsh, hosted a sailing regatta that attracted thousands of partyers.

In Abaco there are free Wi-Fi spots by some businesses.

In one Abaco break-in at a restaurant where security cameras apparently videotaped Harris-Moore, the owner was quoted as saying that the burglar moved cables on the modem and carried his own laptop.

According to another cyber-security expert, Joshua Pennell, founder and president of IOActive in Seattle, a computer-security firm, it's quite likely that Harris-Moore is getting help through the Internet.

He wouldn't need to e-mail or call anyone, just log onto a website that for outsiders would appear to carry fictional stories, but which are actually scenarios people are writing, suggesting what steps Harris-Moore might take next.

Pennell says an advantage Harris-Moore has is that he's quickly moving through various jurisdictions.

On Saturday afternoon, according to The Associated Press, Bahamian police had spent a fruitless week searching for Harris-Moore, and now are refusing to concede he was even in the country.

Pennell says Harris-Moore likely is checking the Internet for news stories that'll tell him what the authorities are up to, and he may keep up his exploits as his fan base rises.

"I don't have 56,000 friends. Do you?" says Pennell.

Not even close.

As "Allison" from Orlando, Fla., whose posted photo shows a bikini blonde, messaged Harris-Moore:

"Colton — I love you — tell me where you are at in the islands and I will meet you there."

Seattle Times staff reporter Mike Carter contributed to this report.

Erik Lacitis: 206-464-2237 or elacitis@seattletimes.com

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