How Big Data Feeds a Growing ‘Online Mafia’  

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The astronomical profits that can be earned by exploiting “big data” threaten to create an “online mafia” that can be as disruptive a criminal force as traditional organized crime, according to a British study.

Large-scale Internet crimes, such as denial of service attacks, data breaches and mass spam attacks are transforming cybercrime into hugely lucrative operations that are overwhelming the ability of law enforcement to control them, warns David S. Wall, a professor of criminology at the Centre for Criminal Justice Studies in the University of Leeds’ School of Law (UK).

“(They are) generating losses and impacts on a scale larger and more threatening to individuals, businesses, and national infrastructure than any cybercrimes ever experienced before,” he wrote in a study published in  Global History: A Journal of Contemporary World Affairs.

 According to the study, posted online this month, the crimes are facilitated by the emergence of “big data,” generated by the interactions of millions of Internet users with online services.

While “big data” has given law enforcement and private companies new tools for predicting human behavior, it is also a disruptive force that has created a new type of criminal— skilled at operating on the so-called “Dark Web,” Wall wrote.

While cyber criminal activity was once limited to using the Internet for illegal activities such as fraud or drug dealing, the huge stores of data now available make it possible to exploit cyberspace itself as a “tool” of criminal behavior, Wall wrote.

So-called “Cloud” technologies have become hugely profitable “force multipliers,” he said, citing the growth of revenue earned from Amazon Web Services from  $1.05 billion in the first quarter of 2014, to $3.67 billion in the first quarter of 2017.

“The…growth in volume and value makes big data attractive to investors and also to criminals,” he wrote. “Not only do the latter recognize the advantages that big data brings with it, but they can also use it to reduce their personal risk.

“Internet technologies originally transformed criminals’ options by enabling them (in theory) to replace one high-risk $50 million robbery with 50 million one-dollar robberies that could be committed in relative safety, [but]  the new force multiplier of cloud technologies now enables them to commit 50 billion ten-cent robberies with even less relative risk for a higher gain.”

According to one technology firm, there have been 7,700 data breaches between 2005 and 2017 that exposed almost a billion personal records.  Many breaches only become public after the fact, if they are publicized art all.

In November 2017, Uber disclosed that it had kept secret a breach of some 57 million records of drivers and riders for more than a year.

‘Big Data’ is now widely exploited by governments to conduct disruptive activities, as the revelations in the report by Special Counsel Robert Mueller have demonstrated.

But the majority of offenders are young people who are skilled hackers. Wall cited 2017 figures from the United Kingdom;s National Crime Agency, showing the average age of those arrested for cyber offenses is 17— many of them with few previous convictions.

“This profile is far from that of the street criminals normally found in the justice system,”wrote Wall, who called them members of the “flat food generation, ” a term he borrowed from Douglas Coupland’s 1995 novel Microserfs, which describes a generation of young people obsessed with computing.

“They lock themselves in their rooms and are saved from starvation only by being fed “flat foods” (such as Pop-Tarts), which their parents or friends slip under their doors,” he wrote. “Today’s flat food generation is often seduced by cybercrime. They drift from playing video games into cheating by disabling their friends’ computers.

“They go on to mix with like-minded people in online hacking chat rooms, learning the tricks of the trade, and eventually committing serious crimes such as DDoS attacks, which can result in substantial prison terms.”

Wall said arresting those offenders and sending them to jail could be dangerously counterproductive.

“What we do not want is to see them being jailed and then falling under the wing of hardened organized criminals, who could call in favours once they have been released from prison,” he said.

That in turn could make things much worse, he added.

“Until recently, traditional organized crime groups tended to keep away from most online activities,” he wrote, “(But) big crime is generating the financial incentives to build a new online mafia that would operate along the lines of the offline mafia by putting criminals under its protection and investing its profits to ultimately create wealth, influence, and political power.

Wall said one way to head off this possibility is to divert young cyber-offenders from the justice system and turn them from “black hat hackers into white-hat hackers.”

It would involve “large-scale prevention programs” that began in schools where many of the offenders are students, as well as real-time detections systems and a better legal framework to deal with data theft.

“Big cybercrime is here to stay because we are in the age of big data,” wrote Wall. “This is a bitter pill that cannot be sweetened.

“Protective measures such as data backups, personal recovery tactics, and business continuity strategies can go a long way toward mitigating the damage done by increasingly common attacks.

“But we need a combined approach to big crime that integrates technological defences with social and educational reforms, as well as improved legal procedures. “

See also: ‘The Growing Partnership Between Russia’s Government and Cybercriminals’

Read the full paper here.

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