Arizona’s Deer Valley School District and the University of Maryland at College Park (UM) appear to be among more than 100 facilities searched in a recent sting operation by the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) to crack down on illegally pirated music, CDs, and movies.

U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft and his deputies won’t say what caused the April 21 raids on the computer command center at Deer Valley and the Kappa Alpha fraternity house at UM. The timing and certain comments by Ashcroft, however, have led to speculation that the raids were part of a much larger FBI crackdown on internet piracy.

The raids came just one day before U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) officials in Washington announced the creation of a new Intellectual Property Task Force to step up copyright enforcement.

During an April 22 press conference, Ashcroft would neither confirm nor deny whether Deer Valley or UM were targets of the investigation, but he did make a point of saying that educational institutions with high-speed internet access often foster environments conducive to the illegal swapping of copyrighted material.

The attorney general also refused to say whether other schools have been targeted for additional FBI raids.

FBI agents raided the Deer Valley School District’s Administration Services Center at 6 a.m. on April 21 and stayed most of the day.

The site houses the district’s information services and technology offices, essentially the “brains” of the district’s computer system, said Timothy Tait, a district spokesman.

School officials were not warned beforehand, and even the district’s top officials, including Superintendent Virginia McElyea, learned of the search warrant only when computers went down.

Classes were not disrupted, but computer use in the district office was limited, with no internet access or eMail on the day of the raid.

The Associated Press reported that some of the stolen copyrighted material sought in the raids is suspected of having been distributed from overseas sources, but Deer Valley’s Tait said the FBI did not specify what it was looking for.

“We don’t know who or what the target is,” he said. “But we don’t believe it was students.”

Tait said the FBI did not indicate when details of the investigation would be released. The agency’s only comment, he said, was that it “wouldn’t be soon.”

Federal agents also raided the Kappa Alpha fraternity house at UM and seized a computer and a Playstation 2 video game console belonging to Jeffrey Daniel Lerman of Hewlett, N.Y., witnesses said. Lerman, a computer science major, was living in the house but was not a member of the fraternity.

A third raid took place at the corporate offices of Golden State College in Visalia, Calif., on April 14, the Visalia Times Delta reported. Federal authorities seized documents and files, but they refused to say whether the Golden State investigation is linked with the others.

More than 120 searches were conducted in 24 hours in 27 states and 10 countries to thwart online networks that distribute copyrighted goods, said DOJ.

The initiative, known as “Operation Fastlink,” has resulted in the seizure of more than 200 computers, including 30 that served as storage and distribution hubs containing thousands of copies of allegedly pirated material. One server seized in the United States contained 65,000 separate pirated titles, authorities said.

The program is intended to combat what Ashcroft referred to as the “Warez network.”

People in “Warez” groups tend not to make money from their file sharing, the Hollywood Reporter, a movie-industry trade publication close to the investigation, explained, but they are a central distribution point for illegal movies, sound recordings, and software before they are released in the theaters or on the store shelves.

“Warez people try to be the first guy out there to post a movie that’s not in the theaters or the latest music titles,” one federal agent involved in the investigation told the trade paper. “It’s not a for-profit enterprise. That’s how people in the Warez scene improve their reputations…. For profit is actually looked down upon.”

According to the trade paper, federal agents said the Warez community is made up of a wide range of people who often have families and good jobs and are extremely good with a computer, though there are some digital neophytes among the suspects. If convicted of violating the federal copyright law they could face up to five years in jail, the film industry publication reported.

According to Ashcroft, the Motion Picture Association of America, the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA), Entertainment Software Association, and Business Software Alliance all cooperated with the Justice Department in Operation Fastlink.

The raids reflect a new effort by DOJ to treat copyright enforcement as a higher priority, something that motion-picture and music-industry officials have been urging.

FBI spokesman Paul Bresson would not comment on why the federal government was searching a school district’s computer system, and he would not identify the other sites in Arizona or elsewhere that were served with warrants.

Bresson also refused to say how targets were identified, noting the search warrants were under court-ordered seal.

When contacted by an eSchool News reporter, DOJ spokesman Bryan Sierra also refused to give any details about what he called “an ongoing investigation.” Sierra said the raids were intended to disrupt and dismantle networks “engaged in the trafficking of pirated goods.”

In the past year, the recording industry has gone after people it claims have been illegally downloading music from the internet.

Earlier in April, RIAA subpoenaed the University of Arizona to provide the personal information of four students accused of illegally downloading music from university computers.

All told, the Warez investigation targeted more than 100 people in the United States and abroad who are alleged to be involved in the theft of more than $50 million worth of music, movies, and software, U.S. authorities said.

Other countries in which FBI searches were conducted include Belgium, Denmark, France, Germany, Hungary, Israel, the Netherlands, Singapore, Sweden, and Great Britain.

No arrests were immediately announced.

See these related links:

Deer Valley School Distrct

University of Maryland at College Park

Federal Bureau of Investigation

U.S. Department of Justice

Recording Industry Association of America

Motion Picture Association of America

Entertainment Software Association

Business Software Alliance