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Online Crime


Darren James Stott

Bomb Ingredients, do-it-yourself poisons and illegal drugs - even your bank details are stored on computers. Could the world be at the mercy of a new breed of Cybercriminal?

In the early hours of a February morning in 1995, agents from the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) surrounded the Player’s Club, a group of luxury apartment buildings in Raleigh, North Carolina. When Kevin Mitnick, one of America’s most notorious hackers, emerged from his flat the authorities swung into action and arrested him. It was the climax of a nationwide hunt by a team of FBI agents, computer scientists and amateur sleuths, headed by computer security expert Tsutomu Shimomura.

Shimomura’s obsession with catching Mitnick began when the hacker broke into his home computer system in December 1994. Mitnick stole $1 million worth of software from Shimomura’s machine and left him taunting voicemail messages. After that, the two became embroiled in a battle of wits that finally ended with Mitnick’s arrest.


National Security

Kevin Mitnick first came to public attention as a teenager in 1982, when as a ‘prank’ he used a computer to access the US Air Defence Command. By the time he was arrested, he was found to be in possession of over 20,000 credit card details and numerous secret passwords to sensitive computer databases around the world.
Mitnick had also acquired the ability to control the three central offices of telephone companies in New York City, and all the telephone switching centre’s in California. If he wanted to, Mitnick could have accessed the nation’s major stock exchange computers or military control centre’s and held the world to financial ransom. At the time of his court case, he could have theoretically been sentenced to 100 years in prison.

Mitnick is just one of an infamous band of anarchic computer scientists who have hit the headlines in the past decade. Another is Mark Abene, also known online by his hacker ‘handle’ Phiber Optik, who was imprisoned on 7 January 1994 for targeting telephone companies’ central computers. He was jailed for a year and a day but was released on 7 November 1994.

Although Abene’s crimes did not carry the same sinister threat as Mitnick’s, both shared a fascination with telephone systems. Like Mitnick, Abene had devised ways of obtaining free international calls by hacking into telecommunication control centre’s. This area of computer hacking is known as ‘phreaking,’ and, for obvious reasons, it is not appreciated by the likes of British Telecom and AT&T. Another, slightly childish, Abene trick involved ‘wiring’ home phones in the UK to pay phones in the US so that a computerized voice demanded ten cents every time the receiver was picked up.

While this may have been a relatively harmless prank, phreakers have the ability to ‘steal’ mobile phone numbers and charge their calls to the original owner's bills. They can also re-route their domestic phone costs so that the amount shows up on, for example, a neighbour's home telephone bill. These crimes are not treated lightly - since 1990, the cost of phreaking has cost UK telephone companies an estimated £400 million.


Hacker Clamp-Down

Abene was particularly vocal about his exploits, even broadcasting his techniques on a weekly New York radio show. This was one of the factors that brought him to the attention of the telephone companies and caused his downfall. In court, a former CIA agent, realising that Abene’s talents were too good to waste in prison, offered to supervise him in a job in Washington. The judge rejected this offer and gave Abene the maximum sentence possible. Many people believe that the phone companies had pressured the judge to make an example of Abene to deter other would-be hackers and phreakers.

But Mitnick and Abene are just the tip of the iceberg. With most of the world's largest companies depending on computers to run their businesses, the scope for computer crime is mind-boggling and as we have now entered the 21st century, will the large telecommunication giants be the only victims of cyber crime?


Theft In Cyberspace


The Internet - a network of computers that can be accessed by anyone, anywhere in the world, with the aid of a modem-capable computer and a telephone line connection - offers new opportunities and challenges for hackers like Mitnick and Abene. Home shopping and banking services are already available over the internet, giving determined computer fraudsters the chance to hijack bank account and credit card details as they travel across the information superhighway.

According to a survey conducted by Management Consultancy PA, UK businesses lost around £40 million a day in 1995 through computer fraud. Examples of this include the headline-hitting case of hackers interfering with the magnetic strips on supermarket loyalty cards to give themselves extra bonus points, which can be used in exchange for goods, services or airline tickets.

One particularly worrying trend is the growing involvement of organized and well-equipped criminals in computer fraud. Organisations as diverse as the Mafia and the IRA need money to support their criminal activities, and computer fraud is a relatively low-risk way of raising large sums of money. They can do this by coercing a company employee into interfering with the computer system and diverting money to a false bank account, or by ‘planting’ one of their members in the company to do it for them. The people perpetrating these crimes rarely get caught because it is extremely difficult to track down, let alone prosecute, the person committing the crime.

However, this is not always the case. One of the most audacious examples of cyber
crime came to public attention in October 1996 with the arrest of seven computer criminals. Using relatively unsophisticated computer equipment - and a few corrupt British Telecom employees - the so-called ‘Hole in the wall gang’ planned to hack into the telephone lines running between cash dispensers and central banking computers.

Hundreds of thousands of customer PIN numbers could be obtained in this way. The PIN numbers could then be decrypted, and loaded on to a new bank card. Using a network of international thieves, money could be obtained from machines across the globe. Police claimed that the heist could have crippled the UK’s financial institutions, had it succeeded.


Data Free-For-All

At the moment, computer fraud seems to be a problem that only affects the profits of big businesses. But as more and more people connect to the Internet, cyber crime could end up being a problem that affects everyone.

The Internet provides a forum for anyone to publish any information they want, irrespective of the legality. Hundreds of thousands of documents exist on the Internet, which could prove lethal if they got into the wrong hands. Instructions for creating crude and sophisticated explosives - even atomic bombs - can be found, as well as ordering details for firearms and other dangerous weapons. Methods for committing suicide exist, as well as instructions on how to perpetrate and literally  get away with murder. You can even find advice on how to change your identity and fake your own death.

The abundance of illegal information on the internet provides the ideal breeding ground for would-be criminals. Of course, one could argue that there is really no such thing as ‘Illegal Information’ - how can knowledge be illegal? Indeed, the very question raises an interesting moral point. The answer is that it is not. Knowing how to carry out an illegal act is not in itself illegal, unless a person crosses the line between knowing how to do something and actually doing it.

Another example of communication ‘free-for-all’ is the proliferation of child pornography on the Internet. Yet policing the Internet to stop on-line child pornography is a mammoth - some would say impossible - task. One of the main problems is that different laws apply in different countries, and the Internet does not fall under the jurisdiction of any one place. If one country decides to crack down on child pornography, paedophiles can simply transfer their material to another country where the laws are more lenient. Material can then be uploaded on to the Internet and accessed by anyone, anywhere in the world. Unsuspecting users can sometimes stumble upon this kind of material accidentally.

In the case of on-line paedophilia, some progress is being made by the use of anonymous ‘tip-offs.’ Anyone who finds paedophile material on the Internet can contact special groups who pass the information on to the relevant authorities, and so far this is proving fairly successful. However, there are many ways of disguising unsavoury material if a person is determined and skilled enough.

Renegade hackers like Kevin Mitnick are always prepared to challenge the so-called experts and break their ‘unbreakable’ systems. But, given that so much dangerous material exists on the Internet, are hackers like Mitnick the real cyber criminals? If their high profile computer skills keep the experts on their toes and drives this area of computer technology forward, perhaps the increase in security knowledge can be used to banish the sinister, anonymous information from the Net - Before it gets out of control.

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