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The Rise and Development of Cybercrimes

Info: 5267 words (21 pages) Essay
Published: 8th Feb 2020 in Criminology

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The vise of modern technology holds our entire world today within its grasp. From society’s economic management to the information widely used for our educational systems, we all have come to depend upon technology for virtually every aspect of our lives today. However, this historical shift in communications has not come without consequence; our liberal usage of recent technological advances is threatened by a new issue that has come to the world’s attention. The information that we share under the impression that it is securely transferred and stored can be corrupted, stolen, and used nefariously by other parties; from 2011 to 2016, nearly 3.5 billion online records were affected by 160 widespread security breaches worldwide (Kumar). This shocking uptick in computer-oriented criminal activity, also known as cybercrime, has sparked a global technologically-driven race to protect the world’s computers, sensitive information, and corresponding networks from harm.

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Cybercrimes are defined as criminal activities executed through technological means, usually computers (Akhgar). These notorious pursuits, often conducted by experienced cybercriminals, are typically enacted in order to steal people’s sensitive information, make a financial profit off the victims, damage or disable any affected devices, or even share harmful viruses and/or illegal content to a widespread audience (ACORN). Any unlawful technology-based activity typically falls into one of the five officially recognized types of cybercrime: phishing, hacking, malware/ransomware, cyberstalking, and identity theft (FBI).

Phishing is a cybercrime built around the deception of its targets; the act is committed by the perpetrator initiating contact with the victims via email, telephone or text message (phishing.org). The criminal then illegally poses as a legitimate institution (banks, the IRS, colleges, etc.) in order to bait the marked individuals into providing their sensitive personal data, such as credit card details or passwords (Pinard, Romer and Morley). Emails and text messages could even contain various links that go to websites designed by the phishers to further deceive the victims by masquerading as the authentic organization (Pinard, Romer and Morley). More often than not, the phishing emails will contain spyware (malware used to spy on a computer) that is installed once the target clicks on the link (Pinard, Romer and Morley). Once having the victim’s information, the cybercrime can quickly turn into a case of identity theft. A more specific form of phishing is called spear phishing, in which the deception is much more personal; the phishers imitate a business that the victim is associated with, whether they are an employee or they own a membership (phishing.org). Once they pass off as a staff member, the phisher then asks for valuable information concerning the organization; such as company data, financial records, future model designs, and restricted access codes (Pinard, Romer and Morley). Phishers are able to sell the information to other companies are successfully scamming their unsuspecting victims’ (phishing.org).

Arguably the most well-known type of cybercrime, hacking is the act of “breaking into” a computer (or even a website) by exploiting its vulnerabilities and then altering the computer’s system to change its purpose, steal data, or possess use of the computer entirely in an act of computer sabotage (Pinard, Romer and Morley). Hackers could engage in illegal acts through the seized computer, such as generating spam or hosting child pornography sites (Pinard, Romer and Morley). In 2015, over 77,000 cybercrimes were reported to the United States government, with the majority of them being hacking incidents (Statista). Not only has hacking resulted in the spending of billions in order to prevent attacks and repair affected computer afterwards, but it’s also been revealed to be an enormous threat to national security (Risen).  The potential targets for large-scale hacking attacks have increased with the decline of paper-based record keeping following the turn of the century– possibly endangering the world’s power grids, banks, national defenses, the stock market, and much more (Pinard, Romer and Morley).

Malware refers to any sort of malicious software that is intentionally written to execute damaging acts upon a computing device, such as deleting files, slowing down a computer, or erasing a hard drive entirely (SANS Security Awareness). The software is installed onto unsuspecting devices, and once downloaded, malware could even spy on a user and collect sensitive data (Pinard, Romer and Morley). Creating malware code or posting it online is not against any official laws; however, distributing the software itself in any form is indeed illegal (Zeltser). One type of malware is a computer virus, a software that is installed and imbedded without the consent of the user; the virus then alters the way the device operates begins to cause harm (Pinard, Romer and Morley). Computers worms are malicious malware programs designed to create copies of its code and send them to other users through a network, typically in an email attachment; once a user opens the email, the worm inflicts damage upon the computer and duplicates itself all over again in a vicious cycle (Pinard, Romer and Morley). Another common form of malware is a Trojan horse, a malware program that typically masquerades as a legitimate software program, such as a Windows update or an entertainment app (Pinard, Romer and Morley). An unsuspecting computer user then mistakenly downloads the Trojan horse, and the device is infected with the harmful software (Pinard, Romer and Morley). In some cases, malware can also be referred to as ransomware; the key difference between these two cybercrimes is that the criminals behind ransomware will demand a sum of money from the victim in order to remove the software from their device (SANS Security Awareness).

Another type of cybercrime is cyberstalking, the exploitation of somebody else’s personal information online in order to harass them, to the point where it becomes disturbing (Marshall University). This cybercrime is extremely commonplace; in the United States, one out of every 12 women and one out of every 45 men have been stalked at some time in their lives (Harvard University). This offense can come in many forms; some people may be harassed by strangers online over trivial disagreements, while others are threatened by acquaintances or even coworkers that could lead to conflict in real life. Most cyberstalking begins with harassing the victim with threatening emails, messages, or comments. However, this crime can quickly turn for the worse; there are instances in which the victim’s home address or telephone numbers are posted online, or even their social media are hacked into and altered by the stalker (Marshall University). The stalking could then pick up offline, and soon the cybercrime may become physical. Cyberstalking poses a legitimate threat to the victim outside of the Internet– and in extreme cases, cyberstalking can result in the death of the stalkee. Unfortunately, there are no specific federal laws against cyberstalking, although it has been made illegal in all 50 states (Pinard, Romer and Morley).

Lastly, identity theft is a serious offense that affects around 9 million Americans every year (Crime Museum). This cybercrime occurs when a cybercriminal deceitfully obtains enough of someone’s personal data to the extent that they could masquerade as that person (The United States Department of Justice ). Most stolen information is usually taken from discarded applications, resumes, information shared on the internet, or was among the data stolen by a computer virus (Pinard, Romer and Morley). The information obtained is used to buy products, apply for credit cards using the victim’s information, or even used to open bank accounts under their name. While using someone else’s data, the thief usually changes the address of the bills to keep the victim unaware of their stolen identity for as long as possible; victims usually find out after being declined credit cards or after being contacted about overdue bills by collection agencies (Pinard, Romer and Morley). Skimming is also a popular method used for identity theft; it revolves around installing a reading device on a card readers, such as those found in ATMs (Pinard, Romer and Morley). The device reads the card information as the card is being swiped, and sends it back to the skimmer. Alternatively, thieves can also use “social engineering”, a process similar to phishing. It involves the offender pretending to be a legitimate banker, an IRS debt collectors, or potential employers in order to gather personal data from victims (Pinard, Romer and Morley).

However, not all cybercrimes can be categorized into the five main types. While it may not be illegal, gaining unauthorized access to a Wi-Fi network is an unethical computer-oriented act. There are two ways two do this: war driving and Wi-Fi piggybacking; war driving is the act of driving around in a car looking for unprotected Wi-Fi networks to connect to, and Wi-Fi piggybacking is connecting to an already nearby network without the consent of the owner (Pinard, Romer and Morley). Another different sort of cybercrime are botnets, computers (or individually referred to as bots) that can be controlled by a cybercriminal in a coordinated manner (Pinard, Romer and Morley). Millions of computer users in the United States are unknowingly part of a botnet; botnets of that scale are set up to perform large-scale computer sabotages, as well as to steal massive amounts of personal data of other users (Pinard, Romer and Morley). Denial of service (DOS) attacks attempt to overload network servers or Web servers with so much activity that the server is unable to run; typically, DOS attacks are executed by botnets created by cybercriminals on popular or controversial websites (Pinard, Romer and Morley). At that point, the attack is labeled a distributive denial of service (DDOS) attack (Pinard, Romer and Morley). Sadly, the distribution of child pornography is a very prevalent form of cybercrime that falls into the basic rule of “illegal offline, illegal online”; more fortunately, it is one of the only cybercrimes that is a federal offense in most countries (Nathan). In any case, cybercrimes all revolve around illegal acts conducted via aggressive technological usage, even if they are all distinguished by technique, scale, and potential end goal.

Cybercrimes can be traced back further than a century, with early forms of “hacking” that began in 1901 (Fell). The first wireless telegraph was introduced by Guglielmo Marconi; the invention used electromagnetic waves to send messages up to 12 miles away, but was later modified to reach across entire oceans (Fell). However, Nevil Maskelyne, a man with an interest in wireless communications, found faults within the Marconi’s invention. Maskelyne intercepted the electromagnetic waves and sent crude messages instead of the ones originally intended to be delivered. His antics were a notable method of bringing light to the vulnerability of any information shared via the wireless telegraph (Fell).

The United States utilized a similar tactic in 1939 during the Second World War; the government employed computer-savvy women to hack into and decode their own encrypted telegraphs (Mundy). The tactic was successful in uncovering any susceptibilities within their communicative routes before actually sending important information along those telegraphs (Mundy). This was an early form of what is known today as a certified ethical hacker, a profession in cybersecurity that revolves around attempting to find weaknesses in a computer’s security system (EC-Council). It wasn’t until much later that different kinds of cybercrimes that many are familiar with began to take hold in the technological world.

As mentioned, cybercrimes later began increasing in skill and scale, especially with the introduction of computers beginning in the 1950s (Akhgar). The United States Department of Homeland Security took note of a large-scale embezzlement crime that began in 1970: “…over the course of three years, the chief teller at the Park Avenue branch of New York’s Union Dime Savings Bank manipulated the account information on the bank’s computer system to embezzle over $1.5 million from hundreds of customer accounts” (Akhgar). This computer manipulation marked the beginning of a new breed of crime depending on computer usage in order to be executed properly.

An early form of a computer virus, created by Bob Thomas, first emerged in 1971– the Creeper virus (Akhgar). The virus spread the taunting message of “I’m the creeper: catch me if you can!” to other computers on the ARPANET, but caused no further harm to the devices (Dalakov).  It is historically noted that Thomas’s creation was not even yet considered a crime during its time, as the concept of a computer virus –or its consequences– was not yet understood by the public (Dalakov).

Cybercrimes began the rise to modern infamy and appeared as a mainstream concern with the development of different methods and tools to execute the unethical activities. In 1981, the first computer virus outbreak in history occurred. Created by Richard Skrenta, the “Elk Cloner” virus infected the Apple DOS 3.3 and Apple II Systems through floppy disk transfer (TechTarget). The “Elk Virus”, much like the Creeper virus, displayed taunting messages on the affected computer’s screen each time the computer was booted up (TechTarget). In 1988, the first computer worm was distributed via the Internet; the Morris worm was able to disable over 6,000 computers over the ARPANET, causing around $100,000 to $10,000,000 worth of damage (Akhgar). Online activity was down for several days after, as regional networks purged themselves to prevent any further contamination. Additionally that year, protestors from the Electronic Disturbance Theater, an electronic company of cyber activists, were able to invade President of Mexico’s website and eventually even the White House computers, demonstrating the internet’s capacity to be operated for more questionable and unlawful acts (Akhgar).

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As the years have passed, cybercrime and technology continue to grow and change; however, this brings catastrophic consequences. Defenses and methods for cybersecurity are becoming by the day futile due to how rapidly they become outdated (Akhgar).  Chairman and founder of the Ponemon Institute, Larry Ponemon, accurately states “The…security solutions that worked so well 10 or 15 years ago have become pretty much irrelevant. It’s a little like a nuclear arms race… It’s a very, very hard, complex issue to manage. That’s why security has never been solved, really; it’s an unsolvable question.” (Ginn). In other words, cybersecurity has been unable to keep up with the fast paced creations of new tools and software used by cybercriminals on the Internet.

Cybercrimes indeed only have increased in magnitude and notoriety in the 21st century. In 2016, the Internet service company Yahoo! reported two major data breaches in what would become one of the biggest cybercrimes to date. The company stated that at least a 500 million user accounts had been compromised by hackers in 2014 (Perlroth). The stolen information was discovered by law enforcement, and after an analysis from a private forensic company, Yahoo! was able to identify the accounts and take action to protect all of the affected users (Yahoo!). Four Russian hackers had managed to access Yahoo!’s database by sending spear-phishing emails to various employees; although it’s uncertain who opened the email first, only one click was needed in order to open it and infect the data (Perlroth). Once security was breached, Alexsey Belan, one of the involved hackers, made a “backdoor” so he could access the Yahoo! database at any time (Perlroth). Yahoo’s database and the Account Management Tool were the main targets for the hackers, and once Belan found them, he was able to download a copy of Yahoo!’s entire user database onto his own computer (Willliams).

 Unfortunately, these large-scale cybercrimes haven’t been one-time events. As of November 2018, the United States Postal Service (USPS) has only recently fixed a flaw which allowed any user with a USPS website account to access the information of 60 million users (Kerbs). That meant that anyone with an account also had access to any of their fellow users’ account number, home address, phone number, or information about scheduled deliveries. Journalist Brian Krebs reported the findings of an anonymous researcher, who explained how he had found the problem more than a year prior. However, his messages to Yahoo! had never been answered until recently, after he had confirmed his findings (Kerbs). The problem resided within the application program interference (API), which is used to direct how each part of the program is supposed to interact with one another (Kerbs). The API was connected to a service called “Informed Visibility”, that allows business and other commercial parties to access real-time tracking data, leading to normal users being able to see data reserved for professional use (Kerbs). In any case, this massive neglect of security has only served to prove that our information cannot be considered safe, even from the most basic threats.

 Unfortunately, cybercrime has taken a newly dangerous turn approaching the 21st century. In the late 1980s, computer researcher Barry C. Collin coined a term to describe the imminent “convergence of cybernetics and terrorism”: cyberterrorism (UTCIA College). Officially, terrorism is defined as attacks launched by terrorists through the Internet and computers to cause havoc in society (Akhgar). This new evolution of cybercrime is a serious threat against entire nations; national defenses, power grids, and even airlines that depend on computers to operate are at risk (Pinard, Romer and Morley). However, there is the upside that cyberterrorists can indeed be brought to justice. In 2016, a computer hacker who gave the Islamic State terrorist group the personal data of 1,351 United States military and government workers was sentenced to 20 years in prison (Federal Times). The hacker, Ardit Ferizi, has become the first person in U.S. history to be convicted on both terrorism and computer hacking charges (Federal Times).

 Despite modern cybercrimes coming into existence less than a century ago, the lives of netizens worldwide have no doubt been shaped by cybercrimes and the resulting security measures placed in order to prevent similar cybernetic criminal activity alike. Certain fundamental rights, such as freedom of speech or right to privacy, have been threatened by the quest for cybersecurity (Pinard, Romer and Morley). The Internet has long been valued for its accessibility, open nature, and its support for individual user innovation. Legislation that is meant to combat cybercriminals could very well restrict user experience online, and destroy the free culture on the Internet that has made it such a success (Nojeim). The lines between privacy and protection have been blurred, and Internet experts all agree that infringing on computer users’ right to surf the Web is not only unnecessary, but also virtually impossible. On a high note, 72% of countries have some sort of legislation against the more damaging cybercrimes, which has assured computer users worldwide that the dangers they are at risk of are being taken seriously by global governments (Pinard, Romer and Morley).

Anyone in the world can be targeted by cybercriminals, so it is practical for everyone to learn how to protect themselves from cyberattacks– individuals as well as corporations. First and foremost, computer users should be conscious of everything they do on the Internet; one can never assume they’re 100% safe (Pinard, Romer and Morley). All downloads should be scrutinized thoroughly, as well as the information users post online and the people they chose to interact with. Computer users should also look into installing reliable and in-touch security software; there is a wide array of programs intended to deflect any threat to their devices available online, and some even for free. These features include, but are not limited to: firewalls, antivirus software, and antispyware software (Pinard, Romer and Morley). To put it simply, firewalls and antivirus software guard and protect device from anything that is suspicious or could be harmful to the computer, such as viruses or bots. Antispyware specifically targets malware that is used to spy on the user, and removes it once it is found (Pinard, Romer and Morley). Another method to improve safety online would be the utilization of two-factor authentication; the two-factor authentication setting not only requests a username and password, but other information such as fingerprints or answers to preset questions in order for a user to be able to access their accounts (Mahoney). As internet crime becomes more and more dangerous, it is useful to take extra precautions. This definitely means making sure passwords are as secure as possible, checking the sites you may make purchases from, or keeping an eye your files and login history to check if anything seems to be out of the ordinary (Mahoney).

Technology has come a long way in the past decade in the pursuit of cybersecurity. The newly created Core vPro software can combine the hardware components in a computer and other factors in order to identify a user (Authors). In other words, the person logging into an account would not only be validated by their username and password, but by the hardware identification on the device they’re using (Authors). Another development in cybersecurity technology are virtual firewalls that are used from the cloud rather than from traditional installation; once they’re put in place, computer security would be greatly improved for any user (Authors). Computer researchers also suggest that artificial intelligence (AI) could soon be used to identify hackers and any damaging bots online; after programming them to understand computerized threats via behavior analytics, AI could very well combat cybercrime without the need to be programmed at all (Authors).

On the other side of the spectrum would be newly created cybercrime software that threatens the sanctity of the Internet. Mobile malware has been the fastest growing type of malware for the past few years (Dascalescu). Because smartphones are rapidly replacing laptops and desktop computers, cellular devices are being sought after more by cybercriminals, and cellular-specific malware has spiked in popularity (Dascalescu). Similarly, information stored in the cloud is also becoming a more favorable target for hackers due to computer users choosing to store their data on that platform; ransomware could soon be crafted in order to specifically force itself into the cloud (Dascalescu). Finally, cryptojacking –hijacking users’ computer hardware in order to mine cryptocurrency for cybercriminals– has become a very recent form of cyberattack (Dascalescu). This cybercrime is conducted via malware that seizes control of other computers, whether the user is made aware or not of the attack. These new methods of cybercrime are definitely not the only new dangers against computer users, and the world will likely see even newer technological threats very soon.

In a world run by computers and the Internet, cybercrime has never been such a viable threat to the people’s sensitive data, computers, and online networks. With new malicious software and tools created by the day, it is crucial to the public that everyone takes the time to protect themselves from any potential cyberattack. Whether a user downloads an antivirus program, or revamps every single one of their passwords, any and all methods of protection will yield the positive outcome of staying safe while using the Internet (Pinard, Romer and Morley). In the coming years, cybersecurity efforts will continue to race against cybercriminals to keep our personal information and devices secure. Cybercrimes will most likely increase in both magnitude and negative effects as a whole as technology evolves at speeds never seen before. It is imperative to national governments and individual users alike that cybersecurity is prioritized in order to keep the Internet safe and accessible to all users. Computers and the Internet are revolutionary creations that have transformed the way we communicate, travel, and educate our young. Cybersecurity is absolutely crucial in making sure everybody is safely able to be a part of this technology-dominated era for decades to come.

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