Virtual battlelines drawn in fight against online crime
When it comes to cyber crime a lot of us stick our heads in the sand.
Apart from perhaps changing our passwords once in a blue moon, we do little more than keep our fingers crossed and hope that hackers and criminal gangs have bigger fish to fry.
And often they do. In 2012, a cyber attack on Saudi Arabia’s national oil company shut down 30,000 of its computers, while recent high-profile hacks of Sony Pictures and a Pentagon Twitter feed led to US President Barack Obama unveiling proposals to strengthen cyber security laws to combat this growing threat.
These recent corporate cyber attacks made headline news and have caused concern among global business leaders with the World Economic Forum issuing a report warning that failing to improve cyber security could cost the global economy $3tn.
But it’s not just big businesses and government websites that are being targeted, ordinary people are victims of internet crimes, too.
Professor Tim Watson, director of the Cyber Security Centre based at the University of Warwick, is an expert in digital forensics and cyber security. He was in Yorkshire yesterday speaking to students at Sheffield Hallam University, which runs a course in forensic accounting that includes a module looking at internet crime.
In his talk, How to commit an eCrime, Prof Watson used examples of real-life crimes and then explained how they could be tackled in the future.
“In general we are learning to live safely in this strange new world where we have one foot in the physical world in a digital environment,” he said.
He told The Yorkshire Post that some criminals were extorting vast sums of money out of people.
“They infect the computers of ordinary citizens and then demand ransoms for the encryption key to get the files back,” he said.
“In 2013, the creators of Cryptolocker [a malicious software] got around $30m in ransom in a hundred days.”
So is the problem getting worse? “It’s more prevalent because online activities are more prevalent.
“But the question is has the rate gone up? And that’s harder to answer because until recently we haven’t had proper reporting of cyber crimes.”
He points out that the growing number of cases being reported doesn’t necessarily mean the problem is getting worse, but could also be a sign that digital crime detectives are getting better at catching the perpetrators.
The internet has transformed the way we live over the last 20 years, but it remains a constantly-shifting world that can seem baffling and even dangerous at times.
However, Prof Watson says it isn’t all doom and gloom. “The message isn’t one of fear and alarm, and the fact is there are things we can do to make sure our computers are as safe as they can be.
“You can regularly patch [update] your computer and if you have more than one computer in the family then use one for playing children’s games and the other for financial transactions.”
He likens browsing the internet to walking around a city centre. “We can do this safely as long as we take reasonable precautions, you wouldn’t wave a big, expensive camera around, or leave bags on the seat of your car, because we know it can make us a target, and it’s a similar thing online.”
At the same time he admits we can never be completely safe from cyber criminals. “We’re still learning how to live safely online in our day to day lives, but you can’t be 100 per cent secure in the same way that you can’t guarantee that a burglar won’t break into your house.
“What we want online is to be reasonably safe and secure and that’s something we are getting better at.”