In the new film "Untraceable," FBI agents are desperate to track down a maniac who tortures people to death and broadcasts his crimes live over the Internet. To find the villain, the agents use the same Internet tools used by real-world cops and security experts - tools from DNSstuff LLC, a network security firm in Newburyport.
"The producers contacted us, sent us the script, and asked if we could provide any input," said DNSstuff's chief executive, Rich Person.
The company went further: It created Vector Trace, a cool-looking computer forensics tool that appears in the movie and will soon be available to DNSstuff's customers.
The film, starring Diane Lane, earned over $19 million in its first two weeks. It also provided some welcome publicity for DNSstuff, a five-year old venture that began as a hobby but which raked in about $1.7 million last year, its first year as a money-making business.
Rather than sell network security software, DNSstuff runs a website that gives visitors easy access to a variety of standard Internet testing tools. Anyone with a PC can run a "ping" test, which tells whether a particular network computer is online, or use "traceroute," which gives a rough idea of where a network computer is located.
DNSstuff combines these standard tests and many others into an easy-to-use Web interface. The service makes it easier to identify network security problems or track down the location of an Internet computer that's spewing spam or trading in child pornography.
"When DNSstuff produced this for us, it was wonderful," said Michael Moran, an Irish police officer who investigates child exploitation for the international police agency Interpol in Paris.
"It speeds things up, and it allows me to keep a record of what I've done. And it's reliable. I might be relying on this information later in court, and I have to be sure that it's reliable."
DNSstuff has waived its usual $36 per user fee and given unlimited access to Interpol and its member police agencies in more than 180 countries.
"The FBI used it extensively," said Ernest Hilbert, a retired FBI agent who consulted on the film and works in the network security operation of the social networking website MySpace.
Other websites offer network investigation tools that could find the numerical "IP addresses" of suspect computers. But Hilbert said that DNSstuff was better at finding the physical location of the server. "They have a new little feature that helps you identify the general area within a city or a state," Hilbert said.
With this information, it's easier to find corrupt servers and shut them down. So Hilbert urged the makers of "Untraceable" to use DNSstuff's network forensics tools in the movie.
DNSstuff went a little Hollywood, too. It repackaged some of its standard tools to make them look more attractive on a movie screen. The result is a new product called Vector Trace, and soon you won't have to be a movie star to use it. "It's a tool that we're going to roll out, and we'll most likely offer it for free," Person said.
For years, everything at DNSstuff was free. Its founder, Scott Perry, started it as a hobby in 2003, while he was running Declude Inc., an antivirus software company then based in Worcester. "I was putting in a lot of long hours, and it was getting very stressful," Perry said. "What I would do to relieve the stress was work on DNSstuff."
Perry sold Declude in 2004 but continued to work there. He devoted much of his time to enhancing the DNSstuff site. By 2006, it was attracting about 2 million unique visitors per month, and generating $11,000 in advertising revenue.
Person, who'd been hired as Declude's chief executive, realized Perry's hobby was a potential gold mine. "I kept saying to myself, this is too good to be true," he said.
Last year, Perry and Person turned DNSstuff into a commercial site. Occasional visitors would still be able to use most of its tools for free, but those who paid $36 a year would gain access to more advanced features. The site took in $1.7 million last year. Partly due to a planned price increase to $49 a year, Person thinks it will hit $5.5 million in 2008. The publicity surrounding "Untraceable" could also boost the business.
But Perry doesn't seem star-struck. Thanks to the company's recent success, "I can focus all my free time on exactly what I want to do" - writing a book on data networks and creating new tools.
Hiawatha Bray can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.