Thursday, 1 March 2007

Crime Pays

Crime pays and it pays very well in cyberspace.

It’s been five years since the first ecrime congress and this month will witness leading figures from government, business, finance and law-enforcement assembling in London, once again, to explore, discuss and hopefully suggest some solutions to deal with an epidemic of crime in cyberspace.

A recent DTI report to the Parliamentary Science & Technology Committee, (POST) conceded that the last 3-4 years has seen the emergence of virtual organised crime groups (OCGs) who are highly organised and operate exclusively via the Internet. Their membership is geographically dispersed and multinational. And their main goal is the exploitation of the Internet to steal personal data and identity to facilitate fraud. These groups continue to grow in size, number and sophistication.

The UK, ‘Broadband Britain’ as you might expect is the most popular place in the world for such OCGs to do business. After all, there are 17 million Internet bank accounts in the UK and over £20 billion was spent online last year by UK customers. And it’s not just the individual at risk; criminals are also targeting corporate networks on a regular basis, attempting to steal information, usually financial and personal data, held on customer databases.

It’s a grim picture, it’s largely about protecting identity, the ‘Achilles Heel” of the digital society and law-enforcement around the planet, simply doesn’t have the budget and the significant physical and technical resources to properly deal with an agile threat that moves at internet speeds. In fact, as ecrime figures still are not officially reported in the nation’s crime statistics, we have no true idea of the size of the problem, which is on a parallel with not knowing how many illegal immigrants have entered the country or how many dangerous criminals have absconded from open prisons this week.

We’ve seen this week that if you are a Heroin dealer or have committed grievous bodily harm, the chances of being jailed are rather less than they were a year ago; a consequence of prison overcrowding. If you happen to be a clever, organised computer criminal indulging in identity theft, the chances of “doing bird” are low enough to make cybercrime an attractive career option. Perhaps we can count our blessings that the skills required in computer science are now so poorly subscribed to in our own society that the best computer criminals are likely to be found among countries with a stronger emphasis on a technology education.

Politicians are, at last starting to take ecrime seriously although real solutions remain thin on the ground. The ecrime congress will hear from Home Office Minster Vernon Coaker, Shadow Home Affairs Minister, James Brokenshire, Information Commissioner, Richard Thomas and Moscow State Prosecutor, Anton Pakhomov. They will be joined by the likes of the Nigerian Economic & Financial Crimes Commission, Paypal, the FBI, the Metropolitan Police, Barclays, Microsoft and Visa in a common search for new ideas, partnerships and solutions in the fight against the international crime gangs that are threatening the future success of the UK’s growing online economy.

If I’m honest, I would say that we have reached or passed a critical point in the history of the internet. Large parts of the economy and government services are now dependent on the internet as a transactional platform and the pace of transition continues to accelerate, as we move towards Web 2.0 and even Web 3.0 models of use. At the same time, the daily impact from online crime spreads like a brushfire, leading one of the architects of the internet, Vint Cerf, to warn recently of a pandemic with up to a quarter of computers on the net available to cyber criminals in so-called botnets.

We are presented with a simple “tail wags dog” challenge that needs urgent international action. Arguably, the darker side of the internet carries the initiative and is starting to exercise a level of control that works against the interests of the billions of people and businesses that increasingly rely on it.

Can we continue as we are? I don’t think so because the levels of crime will become economically unsustainable. Is there a quick solution? No but a recognition of the true scale of the problem and a commitment to act multilaterally against the sources of online crime, among the governments of the G8 would be a good start.

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