The Public Eye with Eric Chabrow

Online Crimes and the War on Drugs

Assessing Risk Is Behind Both Types of Illicit Behavior

The bust this past week of six Estonians - a Russian collaborator remains at large - for one of the biggest online frauds ever (see 6 Nabbed in Global Internet Scam) is reminiscent of another type of organized crime: drugs.

The relatively nascent war against cybercriminals, sadly, will likely have the same outcome as the war against drug warlords. Celebrated arrests of drug kingpins and their cohorts over the decades haven't stopped others from pushing the sales of illicit narcotics. Why should we believe the arrest of a half-dozen in Eastern Europe or even the 111 individuals indicted last month in one of the biggest ID thefts (see Biggest ID Theft Bust in History) will stop others from doing the same in the virtual world? We shouldn't. It hasn't worked in the War on Drugs

There, too, you had big, high profile busts, but overall, the drugs kept flowing. 

"There, too, you had big, high profile busts, but overall, the drugs kept flowing," cyber lawyer David Navetta tells my colleague Tracy Kitten (see Will Cybercrime Arrests Be a Deterrent?).

The War on Drugs has been going on for at least 40 years; the term War on Drugs was first popularly voiced by President Richard Nixon in 1971, but law enforcement's battle against pushers has a much longer history. San Francisco enacted one of the first anti-drug laws in the United State, banning the smoking of opium in 1874. Early efforts to curtail drug use in America involved taxation: Congress imposed a tax on opium and morphine in 1890. Not until 1905 did Congress ban opium. Over the next century, the government toughened drug laws, but addiction didn't decline, but increased.

Criminals commit crimes, whether in the real world or virtual one, because they figure they can get away with it. It's a simple matter of risk assessment. They weigh the consequences against the gain, and though handful of Eastern Europeans got caught, the fact that authorities say they illicitly gained $14 million will encourage others to pursue similar unlawful ventures.

Most people with high-end IT skills - especially information security know-how - are smarter than most folks. A few - and we know them - can be quite cocky about their intellect. And, those with hacking proficiencies are risk takers. A few - and it needn't be many to cause problems for the rest of us - will feel they're clever enough to get away with these digital crimes. And, some will.

Don't get me wrong, most IT and IT security experts are not bent on exploiting their talents to commit crimes. But you don't need a large number of people to cause the rest of us to be a bit anxious when we browse the Web.

A major difference exists between battling illicit drug sales and/or use and stopping online fraud: the victims. As a society, we can hamper illegal drug trafficking by either decriminalizing drug sales or stop using them. Politically and individually, neither option is viable. The political will doesn't exist to decriminalize drug use and the lack of willpower for many drug users to stop means the demand for a steady supply of heroin, cocaine and other illegal narcotics will continue.

Not so with cybercrime. The Estonian case, for instance, involved clickjacking, a malicious technique that tricks Web users, even sophisticated ones, into access fraudulent websites. Unlike drug use, Internet users can do little to change their online habits to prevent these types of crimes. That said, by taking more personal responsibility for our own online security, we could reduce our vulnerabilities to online criminals, though we cannot eliminate them all.

We laud law enforcement for their efforts to bring down online criminal enterprises like the one in Estonia, and encourage more such endeavors. But the bottom line: online crimes - like drug crimes - will be with us as long as those committing these dastardly deeds feel the risk they take is worth the payoff they'll receive. It's a sad state, but one we must learn to live with.

About the Author

Eric Chabrow

Eric Chabrow

Retired Executive Editor, GovInfoSecurity

Chabrow, who retired at the end of 2017, hosted and produced the semi-weekly podcast ISMG Security Report and oversaw ISMG's GovInfoSecurity and InfoRiskToday. He's a veteran multimedia journalist who has covered information technology, government and business.

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