Net cops: cybercrime and the crowd

February 3rd, 2011 by

microtask_net_copsNo doubt about it, Hollywood loves a hacker. On the big screen, your average cyber-nut is a cool (suspiciously good-looking) loner with the kind of IQ Albert Einstein would envy.

“Good” hackers – Neo from the Matrix or Acid Burn (aka a very fresh faced Angelina Jolie) – might play around a little with the law, but ultimately they put their genius toward battling crime bosses, evil corporations or psychotic sunglasses-wearing A.I.

But, as with spies, the Mafia and teenage wizards, when it comes to hackers the movie business has employed a generous dose of creative license. Shockingly, it turns out that what the authorities could really do with in the fight against cybercrime is not a Kung-Fu fighting Keanu, but help from the crowd.

Continental Intelligence
Head of Europol (Europe’s answer to the CIA) Rob Wainwright recently announced his plan to get the masses directly involved in stopping online bad guys.

Basically, the problem is that after twenty years of the web there’s still no concrete data on the scope and extent of cybercrime. We’re not just talking criminal mastermind level stuff here, but also everyday offenses: email scams, security attacks, credit card fraud – the bread and butter of the online underworld. Why is info on these infractions so scarce? First, because they’re low level – even the most dedicated citizens don’t always bother to report them. Secondly, data that does exist ends up spread across hundreds of police forces, credit card companies and consumer groups.

Wainwright wants to change all that. He envisages a Europe-wide system that allows the crowd to feed details of any internet misdemeanor, however trivial, into an international database. There’s a similar project already up and running in the US – the Internet Crime Complaint center.

At first glance merely working out the scope of cybercrime may not seem like a great step towards solving it. But then again (apologies to any English teachers for the mixed metaphors) if you don’t know your enemies, you’re likely to end up chasing ghosts in the machine.

A hacker’s paradise?
It isn’t everyday the EU gets the chance to build a brand new cybercrime center. It’ll be interesting to see how creative Europol is prepared to be in implementing Rob Wainwright’s grand plan. The intelligence chief has timidly talked about (wait for it guys) “a website”. Trouble is, to get a complete picture of online crime you have to make reporting it a reflex – something web users do automatically. For that, surely Europol needs to get right into the scene of the action. I’m thinking a big red “report crime” button in browsers, email and shopping sites, that pops up a Europol form when clicked (along with appropriate sound effects).

The effect crowd action has on net crime really depends on how “intelligently” intelligence agencies handle the information. It’s one thing to collect millions of online violations but what will happen to all that data? How do you make sure serious crimes – big-scale fraud, money laundering, sex offenses – don’t end up buried in the mountain of lesser offences? Plus it’s a big globalized world out there, even trans-European Europol has little or no power over Nigerian fraudsters or Russian hackers.

There comes a point in life of every geek when you just have to accept you’re probably never going to foil an international conspiracy from your laptop. The odd email scam, on the other hand, is the sort of crime almost any net user can help bring down – just a shame it doesn’t have quite the same blockbuster appeal…

  • Anonymous

    Some further reading here: for those interested in the global cybercrime outlook.

  • mobilegamelab

    i liked the article. i was interested to find that Rob Wainwright has “plan to get the masses directly involved in stopping online bad guys.” because the bad guys will have access and “use” this buttons.