Schemes to defraud consumers abound on the Internet. Among the most famous is the Nigerian, or “419,” scam; the number is a reference to the section of Nigerian law that the scam violates. Although this con has been used with both fax and traditional mail, it has been given new life by the Internet. In the scheme, an individual receives an e-mail asserting that the sender requires help in transferring a large sum of money out of Nigeria or another distant country. Usually, this money is in the form of an asset that is going to be sold, such as oil, or a large amount of cash that requires “laundering” to conceal its source; the variations are endless, and new specifics are constantly being developed. The message asks the recipient to cover some cost of moving the funds out of the country in return for receiving a much larger sum of money in the near future. Should the recipient respond with a check or money order, he is told that complications have developed; more money is required. Over time, victims can lose thousands of dollars that are utterly unrecoverable.
In 2002 the newly formed U.S. Internet Crime Complaint Center reported that more than $54 million dollars had been lost through a variety of fraud schemes; this represented a threefold increase over estimated losses of $17 million in 2001. The annual losses grew in subsequent years, reaching $125 million in 2003, about $200 million in 2006, and close to $250 million in 2008. In the United States, the largest source of fraud continues to be online auctions. In many cases, individuals put products up for sale on Internet auction sites, demand money before delivery, and never fulfill their obligations to the consumer. Such scams account for about half of the fraud cases each year. Unlike identity theft, where the theft occurs without the victim’s knowledge, these more traditional forms of fraud occur in plain sight. The victim willingly provides private information that enables the crime; hence, these are transactional crimes. Few people would believe someone who walked up to them on the street and promised them easy riches; however, receiving an unsolicited e-mail or visiting a random Web page is sufficiently different that many people easily open their wallets. Despite a vast amount of consumer education, Internet fraud remains a growth industry for criminals and prosecutors. Europe and the United States are far from the only sites of cybercrime. South Korea is among the most wired countries in the world, and its cybercrime fraud statistics are growing at an alarming rate. Japan has also experienced a rapid growth in similar crimes.
Computers also make more mundane types of fraud possible. Take the automated teller machine (ATM) through which many people now get cash. In order to access an account, a user supplies a card and personal identification number (PIN). Criminals have developed means to intercept both the data on the card’s magnetic strip as well as the user’s PIN. In turn, the information is used to create fake cards that are then used to withdraw funds from the unsuspecting individual’s account. For example, in 2002 the New York Times reported that more than 21,000 American bank accounts had been skimmed by a single group engaged in acquiring ATM information illegally. A particularly effective form of fraud has involved the use of ATMs in shopping centres and convenience stores. These machines are free-standing and not physically part of a bank. Criminals can easily set up a machine that looks like a legitimate machine; instead of dispensing money, however, the machine gathers information on users and only tells them that the machine is out of order after they have typed in their PINs. Given that ATMs are the preferred method for dispensing currency all over the world, ATM fraud has become an international problem.
The international nature of cybercrime is particularly evident with wire fraud. One of the largest and best-organized wire fraud schemes was orchestrated by Vladimir Levin, a Russian programmer with a computer software firm in St. Petersburg. In 1994, with the aid of dozens of confederates, Levin began transferring some $10 million from subsidiaries of Citibank, N.A., in Argentina and Indonesia to bank accounts in San Francisco, Tel Aviv, Amsterdam, Germany, and Finland. According to Citibank, all but $400,000 was eventually recovered as Levin’s accomplices attempted to withdraw the funds. Levin himself was arrested in 1995 while in transit through London’s Heathrow Airport (at the time, Russia had no extradition treaty for cybercrime). In 1998 Levin was finally extradited to the United States, where he was sentenced to three years in jail and ordered to reimburse Citibank $240,015. Exactly how Levin obtained the necessary account names and passwords has never been disclosed, but no Citibank employee has ever been charged in connection with the case. Because a sense of security and privacy are paramount to financial institutions, the exact extent of wire fraud is difficult to ascertain. In the early 21st century, wire fraud remained a worldwide problem.
File sharing and piracy
Sales of compact discs (CDs) are the major source of revenue for recording companies. Although piracy—that is, the illegal duplication of copyrighted materials—has always been a problem, especially in the Far East, the proliferation on college campuses of inexpensive personal computers capable of capturing music off CDs and sharing them over high-speed (“broadband”) Internet connections has become the recording industry’s greatest nightmare. In the United States, the recording industry, represented by the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA), attacked a single file-sharing service, Napster, which from 1999 to 2001 allowed users across the Internet access to music files, stored in the data-compression format known as MP3, on other users’ computers by way of Napster’s central computer. According to the RIAA, Napster users regularly violated the copyright of recording artists, and the service had to stop. For users, the issues were not so clear-cut. At the core of the Napster case was the issue of fair use. Individuals who had purchased a CD were clearly allowed to listen to the music, whether in their home stereo, automobile sound system, or personal computer. What they did not have the right to do, argued the RIAA, was to make the CD available to thousands of others who could make a perfect digital copy of the music and create their own CDs. Users rejoined that sharing their files was a fair use of copyrighted material for which they had paid a fair price. In the end, the RIAA argued that a whole new class of cybercriminal had been born—the digital pirate—that included just about anyone who had ever shared or downloaded an MP3 file. Although the RIAA successfully shuttered Napster, a new type of file-sharing service, known as peer-to-peer (P2P) networks, sprang up. These decentralized systems do not rely on a central facilitating computer; instead, they consist of millions of users who voluntarily open their own computers to others for file sharing.The RIAA continues to battle these file-sharing networks, demanding that ISPs turn over records of their customers who move large quantities of data over their networks, but the effects have been minimal. The RIAA’s other tactic has been to push for the development of technologies to enforce the digital rights of copyright holders. So-called digital rights management (DRM) technology is an attempt to forestall piracy through technologies that will not allow consumers to share files or possess “too many” copies of a copyrighted work. As companies work on the hardware and software necessary to meet these goals, it is clear that file sharing has brought about a fundamental reconstruction of the relationship between producers, distributors, and consumers of artistic material. As broadband Internet connections proliferate, the motion-picture industry faces a similar problem, although the digital videodisc (DVD) came to market with encryption and various built-in attempts to avoid the problems of a video Napster.At the start of the 21st century, copyright owners began accommodating themselves with the idea of commercial digital distribution. Examples include the online sales by the iTunes Store (run by Apple Inc.) and Amazon.com of music, television shows, and movies in downloadable formats, with and without DRM restrictions. In addition, several cable and satellite television providers, as well as manyelectronic game systems (Sony Corporation’s PlayStation 3 and Microsoft Corporation’s Xbox 360), have developed “video-on-demand” services that allow customers to download movies and shows for immediate (streaming) or later playback.
Counterfeiting and forgery
File sharing of intellectual property is only one aspect of the problem with copies. Another more mundane aspect lies in the ability of digital devices to render nearly perfect copies of material artifacts. Take the traditional crime of counterfeiting. Until recently, creating passable currency required a significant amount of skill and access to technologies that individuals usually do not own, such as printing presses, engraving plates, and special inks. The advent of inexpensive, high-quality colour copiers and printers has brought counterfeiting to the masses. Ink-jet printers now account for a growing percentage of the counterfeit currency confiscated by the U.S. Secret Service. In 1995 ink-jet currency accounted for 0.5 percent of counterfeit U.S. currency; in 1997 ink-jet printers produced 19 percent of the illegal cash. The widespread development and use of computer technology prompted the U.S. Treasury to redesign U.S. paper currency to include a variety of anticounterfeiting technologies. The European Union currency, or euro, had security designed into it from the start. Special features, such as embossed foil holograms and special ribbons and paper, were designed to make counterfeiting difficult. Indeed, the switch to the euro presented an unprecedented opportunity for counterfeiters of preexisting national currencies. The great fear was that counterfeit currency would be laundered into legal euros. Fortunately, it was not the problem that some believed it would be.Nor is currency the only document being copied. Immigration documents are among the most valuable, and they are much easier to duplicate than currency. In the wake of the September 11 attacks, this problem came under increasing scrutiny in the United States. In particular, the U.S. General Accounting Office (GAO) issued several reports during the late 1990s and early 2000s concerning the extent of document fraud that had been missed by the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS). Finally, a 2002 report by the GAO reported that more than 90 percent of certain types of benefit claims were fraudulent and further stated that immigration fraud was “out of control.” Partially in response to these revelations, the INS was disbanded and its functions assumed by the newly constituted U.S. Department of Homeland Security in 2003.
With the advent of almost every new media technology, pornography has been its “killer app,” or the application that drove early deployment of technical innovations in search of profit. The Internet was no exception, but there is a criminal element to this business bonanza—child pornography, which is unrelated to the lucrative business of legal adult-oriented pornography. The possession of child pornography, defined here as images of children under age 18 engaged in sexual behaviour, is illegal in the United States, the European Union, and many other countries, but it remains a problem that has no easy solution. The problem is compounded by the ability of “kiddie porn” Web sites to disseminate their material from locations, such as states of the former Soviet Union as well as Southeast Asia, that lack cybercrime laws. Some law-enforcement organizations believe that child pornography represents a $3-billion-a-year industry and that more than 10,000 Internet locations provide access to these materials.The Internet also provides pedophiles with an unprecedented opportunity to commit criminal acts through the use of “chat rooms” to identify and lure victims. Here the virtual and the material worlds intersect in a particularly dangerous fashion. In many countries, state authorities now pose as children in chat rooms; despite the widespread knowledge of this practice, pedophiles continue to make contact with these “children” in order to meet them “off-line.” That such a meeting invites a high risk of immediate arrest does not seem to deter pedophiles. Interestingly enough, it is because the Internet allows individual privacy to be breached that the authorities are able to capture pedophiles.
While breaching privacy to detect cybercrime works well when the crimes involve the theft and misuse of information, ranging from credit card numbers and personal data to file sharing of various commodities—music, video, or child pornography—what of crimes that attempt to wreak havoc on the very workings of the machines that make up the network? The story of hacking actually goes back to the 1950s, when a group of phreaks (short for “phone freaks”) began to hijack portions of the world’stelephone networks, making unauthorized long-distance calls and setting up special “party lines” for fellow phreaks. With the proliferation of computer bulletin board systems (BBSs) in the late 1970s, the informal phreaking culture began to coalesce into quasi-organized groups of individuals who graduated from the telephone network to “hacking” corporate and government computer networksystems.Although the term hacker predates computers and was used as early as the mid-1950s in connection with electronic hobbyists, the first recorded instance of its use in connection with computer programmers who were adept at writing, or “hacking,” computer code seems to have been in a 1963 article in a student newspaper at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). After the first computer systems were linked to multiple users through telephone lines in the early 1960s,hackercame to refer to individuals who gained unauthorized access to computer networks, whether from another computer network or, as personal computers became available, from their own computer systems. Although it is outside the scope of this article to discuss hacker culture, most hackers have not been criminals in the sense of being vandals or of seeking illicit financial rewards. Instead, most have been young people driven by intellectual curiosity; many of these people have gone on to become computer security architects. However, as some hackers sought notoriety among their peers, their exploits led to clear-cut crimes. In particular, hackers began breaking into computer systems and then bragging to one another about their exploits, sharing pilfered documents as trophies to prove their boasts. These exploits grew as hackers not only broke into but sometimes took control of government and corporate computer networks.One such criminal was Kevin Mitnick, the first hacker to make the “most wanted list” of the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI). He allegedly broke into the North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) computer in 1981, when he was 17 years old, a feat that brought to the fore the gravity of the threat posed by such security breaches. Concern with hacking contributed first to an overhaul of federal sentencing in the United States, with the 1984 Comprehensive Crime Control Act and then with the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act of 1986.The scale of hacking crimes is among the most difficult to assess because the victims often prefer not to report the crimes—sometimes out of embarrassment or fear of further security breaches. Officials estimate, however, that hacking costs the world economy billions of dollars annually. Hacking is not always an outside job—a related criminal endeavour involves individuals within corporations or government bureaucracies deliberately altering database records for either profit or political objectives. The greatest losses stem from the theft of proprietary information, sometimes followed up by the extortion of money from the original owner for the data’s return. In this sense, hacking is old-fashioned industrial espionage by other means.The largest known case of computer hacking was discovered in late March 2009. It involved government and private computers in at least 103 countries. The worldwide spy network known asGhostNet was discovered by researchers at the University of Toronto, who had been asked by representatives of the Dalai Lama to investigate the exiled Tibetan leader’s computers for possiblemalware. In addition to finding out that the Dalai Lama’s computers were compromised, the researchers discovered that GhostNet had infiltrated more than a thousand computers around the world. The highest concentration of compromised systems were within embassies and foreign affairs bureaus of or located in South Asian and Southeast Asian countries. Reportedly, the computers were infected by users who opened e-mail attachments or clicked on Web page links. Once infected with the GhostNet malware, the computers began “phishing” for files throughout the local network—even turning on cameras and video-recording devices for remote monitoring. Three control servers that ran the malware were located in Hainan, Guangdong, and Sichuan provinces in China, and a fourth server was located in California.
The deliberate release of damaging computer viruses is yet another type of cybercrime. In fact, this was the crime of choice of the first person to be convicted in the United States under the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act of 1986. On November 2, 1988, a computer science student at Cornell University named Robert Morris released a software “worm” onto the Internet from MIT (as a guest on the campus, he hoped to remain anonymous). The worm was an experimental self-propagating and replicating computer program that took advantage of flaws in certain e-mail protocols. Due to a mistake in its programming, rather than just sending copies of itself to other computers, this software kept replicating itself on each infected system, filling all the available computer memory. Before a fix was found, the worm had brought some 6,000 computers (one-tenth of the Internet) to a halt. Although Morris’s worm cost time and millions of dollars to fix, the event had few commercial consequences, for the Internet had not yet become a fixture of economic affairs. That Morris’s father was the head of computer security for the U.S. National Security Agency led the press to treat the event more as a high-tech Oedipal drama than as a foreshadowing of things to come. Since then, ever more harmful viruses have been cooked up by anarchists and misfits from locations as diverse as the United States, Bulgaria, Pakistan, and the Philippines.
Denial of service attacks
Compare the Morris worm with the events of the week of February 7, 2000, when “mafiaboy,” a 15-year-old Canadian hacker, orchestrated a series of denial of service attacks (DoS) against several e-commerce sites, including Amazon.com and eBay.com. These attacks used computers at multiple locations to overwhelm the vendors’ computers and shut down their World Wide Web (WWW) sites to legitimate commercial traffic. The attacks crippled Internet commerce, with the FBI estimating that the affected sites suffered $1.7 billion in damages. In 1988 the Internet played a role only in the lives of researchers and academics; by 2000 it had become essential to the workings of the U.S. government and economy. Cybercrime had moved from being an issue of individual wrongdoing to being a matter of national security.Distributed DoS attacks are a special kind of hacking. A criminal salts an array of computers with computer programs that can be triggered by an external computer user. These programs are known asTrojan horses since they enter the unknowing users’ computers as something benign, such as a photo or document attached to an e-mail. At a predesignated time, this Trojan horse program begins to send messages to a predetermined site. If enough computers have been compromised, it is likely that the selected site can be tied up so effectively that little if any legitimate traffic can reach it. One important insight offered by these events has been that much software is insecure, making it easy for even an unskilled hacker to compromise a vast number of machines. Although software companies regularly offer patches to fix software vulnerabilities, not all users implement the updates, and their computers remain vulnerable to criminals wanting to launch DoS attacks. In 2003 the Internet service provider PSINet Europe connected an unprotected server to the Internet. Within 24 hours the server had been attacked 467 times, and after three weeks more than 600 attacks had been recorded. Only vigorous security regimes can protect against such an environment. Despite the claims about the pacific nature of the Internet, it is best to think of it as a modern example of the Wild West of American lore—with the sheriff far away.
E-mail has spawned one of the most significant forms of cybercrime—spam, or unsolicited advertisements for products and services, which experts estimate to comprise roughly 50 percent of the e-mail circulating on the Internet. Spam is a crime against all users of the Internet since it wastes both the storage and network capacities of ISPs, as well as often simply being offensive. Yet, despite various attempts to legislate it out of existence, it remains unclear how spam can be eliminated without violating the freedom of speech in a liberal democratic polity. Unlike junk mail, which has a postage cost associated with it, spam is nearly free for perpetrators—it typically costs the same to send 10 messages as it does to send 10 million.One of the most significant problems in shutting down spammers involves their use of other individuals’ personal computers. Typically, numerous machines connected to the Internet are first infected with a virus or Trojan horse that gives the spammer secret control. Such machines are known as zombie computers, and networks of them, often involving thousands of infected computers, can be activated to flood the Internet with spam or to institute DoS attacks. While the former may be almost benign, including solicitations to purchase legitimate goods, DoS attacks have been deployed in efforts to blackmail Web sites by threatening to shut them down. Cyberexperts estimate that the United States accounts for about one-fourth of the 4–8 million zombie computers in the world and is the origin of nearly one-third of all spam.E-mail also serves as an instrument for both traditional criminals and terrorists. While libertarians laud the use of cryptography to ensure privacy in communications, criminals and terrorists may also use cryptographic means to conceal their plans. Law-enforcement officials report that some terrorist groups embed instructions and information in images via a process known as steganography, a sophisticated method of hiding information in plain sight. Even recognizing that something is concealed in this fashion often requires considerable amounts of computing power; actually decoding the information is nearly impossible if one does not have the key to separate the hidden data.
Another type of hacking involves the hijacking of a government or corporation Web site. Sometimes these crimes have been committed in protest over the incarceration of other hackers; in 1996 the Web site of the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) was altered by Swedish hackers to gain international support for their protest of the Swedish government’s prosecution of local hackers, and in 1998 theNew York Times’s Web site was hacked by supporters of the incarcerated hacker Kevin Mitnick. Still other hackers have used their skills to engage in political protests: in 1998 a group calling itself the Legion of the Underground declared “cyberwar” on China and Iraq in protest of alleged human rights abuses and a program to build weapons of mass destruction, respectively.Defacing Web sites is a minor matter, though, when compared with the specter of cyberterrorists using the Internet to attack the infrastructure of a nation, by rerouting airline traffic, contaminating the water supply, or disabling nuclear plant safeguards. One consequence of the September 11 attacks on New York City was the destruction of a major telephone and Internet switching centre. Lower Manhattan was effectively cut off from the rest of the world, save for radios and cellular telephones. Since that day, there has been no other attempt to destroy the infrastructure that produces what has been called that “consensual hallucination,” cyberspace. Large-scale cyberwar (or “information warfare”) has yet to take place, whether initiated by rogue states or terrorist organizations, although both writers and policy makers have imagined it in all too great detail.In late March 2007 the Idaho National Laboratory released a video demonstrating what catastrophic damage could result from utility systems being compromised by hackers. Several utilities responded by giving the U.S. government permission to run an audit on their systems. In March 2009 the results began to leak out with a report in The Wall Street Journal. In particular, the report indicated that hackers had installed software in some computers that would have enabled them to disrupt electrical services. Homeland Security spokeswoman Amy Kudwa affirmed that no disruptions had occurred, though further audits of electric, water, sewage, and other utilities would continue.