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Cybercrime: a natural human adaptation of information technology

By Bernie Matthews - posted Monday, 5 May 2003

The benefits of information technology to humanity are illustrated by the evolution from the political activism of the anti-Vietnam war, anti-apartheid and Sydney green-ban protests of the 1960s and 1970s to 21st century computer activism with its powerful new types of culturally subversive protests. The trend reveals an emerging movement that's leaderless, global, anarchic and chaotic but it is a movement in which ordinary people can participate en masse to voice their concerns and bring about change.

The electronic protests have underlying anti-globalisation ideologies and employ "virtual sit-ins" and "online attacks" that are created by web-based activists (hacktivists) who primarily target multinational corporations and political organisations that promote aims and objectives contrary to anti-globalisation.

The damaging effect of a "virtual sit-in" was revealed when the World Trade Organisation was forced to shut down its website during the 1999 WTO conference in Seattle after thousands of global hacktivists clogged the website and prevented access. On another occasion the Quebec police were forced to shut down their website during the Summit of the Americas meeting in Quebec City, Canada, in April 2000 after fears of an attack from hacktivists that spanned four continents to stage a virtual sit-in and disrupt the Summit.


The collapse of eToys Inc in the US magnifies the devastation of "online attacks" against corporate dotcom identities. The Swiss-based hacktivist group eToy owned the domain name but when they refused an offer by eToys Inc to buy their domain name for US$500 000 the American company threatened to sue in a US court. The Zurich-based hacktivists countered the corporate threat by organising a virtual sit-in 12 days before Christmas 2000 in which 50,000 hacktivists jammed the American dotcom's online shopping website and stopped genuine buyers from buying toys.

The company's share price fell from $84 to zero on the NASDAQ and in March 2001 eToys Incorporated was forced to file for bankruptcy.

The upsurge in web-based activism has created a cottage industry of Internet intelligence agencies that command considerable sums from companies requiring protection from possible cyber attacks. The cyber-sleuth is only worth his fee if he can tell a client beforehand that a hacktivist group is planning an attack and those warnings result from continuous Internet surveillance that includes scouring the web by criss-crossing time zones and continents. Organised crime, terrorist groups, vigilantes, petty thieves and activist groups, are the focus of most surveillance operations on the net but the cyber-sleuth must also be conversant with the changing mode of cyber attack tools that include worms and viruses.

Worms are software that infect computer networks by replicating themselves from machine to machine. They clog up bandwidth and use computer time. The Code Red worm infected thousands of computers in 2001 before it launched an attack on a White House web server in the US and attempted to inundate it with junk data. The Code Red worm replicated itself 250,000 times in 9 hours.

Worms have been used in military cyber attacks during the Bosnian-Serbian war as well as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Surveillance, dataveillance and the use of upgraded virus detectors retain some semblance of protection against worms but the widespread use of Microsoft software and the lack of diversity makes it easy for hackers to design worms that can be accommodated by the networks.

Virus-infected emails also continue to increase, with new breeds hidden in electronic messages as opposed to the older style that were sent by email attachments. The upsurge of email viruses is a security task for companies that will eventually slow down email delivery. The prevalence of computer viruses has risen on average from one in a thousand emails to one in 200 emails in the space of a year.


The increase of viruses and worms that can attack and disable computers and computer systems is paralleled by increasing incidents of net fraud and cyber crime that some experts claim is inevitable. That inevitability was magnified with the arrest of 14-year-old Jonathan Lebed who became the first minor to be charged in the US with stock-market manipulation on the net after he made $US800 000 buying and selling stocks online after school.

The arrest of Robert Hansen, a former FBI special agent who had been spying for the Russians, also highlights how the information technology can be illegally exploited to gain vast amounts of confidential information. Hansen had been stealing confidential information for the Russians over a 22-year period.

In an attempt to circumvent similar Internet crime here, Australian law enforcement authorities have brokered deals with internet service providers (ISPs) which include data surveillance,while the Federal government prepares legislation that will increase the obligations of ISPs to help criminal investigations. ISPs are already obliged to provide information to assist State and Federal law enforcement agencies after a warrant is issued.

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About the Author

Bernie Matthews is a convicted bank robber and prison escapee who has served time for armed robbery and prison escapes in NSW (1969-1980) and Queensland (1996-2000). He is now a journalist. He is the author of Intractable published by Pan Macmillan in November 2006.

Other articles by this Author

All articles by Bernie Matthews
Related Links
Department of Communication, Information Technology and the Arts
Joint Parliamentary Committee Inquiry into Cybercrime
Office of the Federal Privacy Commissioner
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