Neil Barrett’s thorough account of how criminals can exploit computers and the Internet to wreck your business is scary stuff. Lem Bingley suffers the sleepless nights…
William Gibson grabbed himself a piece of popular history by inventing the term ‘cyberspace,’ a word denoting the ethereal province in which things exist only as computerized bits. The term has become widely understood, but tends only to be employed by people who don’t really understand what they’re talking about. In consequence, the use of any word with ‘cyber’ at the beginning tends to generate a palpable air of claptrap. I’m not sure who invented the term ‘cybernation’ (the collection of people that populate cyberspace, naturally If author Neil Barrett didn’t, he unwisely feels the need to popularize it. His first book, The State of the Cybernation, used the word a lot. His latest slim volume, Digital Crime, keeps up the practice and I have to tell you that it’s beginning to grate. This is a shame, because this latest book is otherwise an admirable one. Barrett has clearly put a lot of thought and effort into his subject, and his account of the ways in which computers and digital technology can be exploited by the criminal element in society is highly instructive. As Barrett gleefully points out, criminals are already present in the cybernation, whether we like it or not. When we hook up our computers to the Internet, we choose to become part of a populace drawn from all walks of life. That doesn’t just encompass housewives, chief executives, schoolchildren, pensioners – it also includes plenty of criminals.
The bulk of Barrett’s book is made up of a point-by-point account of how these unscrupulous people exploit digital technology to indulge in ever more complex acts of vandalism, blackmail, espionage, terrorism or exploitation. The mainstream media has begun to report on the successful capture and prosecution of information-age criminals ranging from virus-writers to paedophiles. The impression, therefore, is often that the criminal element is small, only tangentially threatening to business and individuals, and well under control. This picture is wrong, asserts Barrett, and the one he paints in its place is much less comforting. For example, the relatively low figures that you’ll find in most reports about hacking are misleading, Barrett claims. Most obviously, they correspond only to the reported security breaches, he observes. To count in this category, the breach must therefore be noticed, and the organization concerned must then also be prepared to admit to the security lapse. Even the reported incidents show a worrying dimension. In 1994 the UK’s Audit Commission found that over half of reported incidents were detected by accident. Only two percent were discovered as a result of positive action by security staff, Barrett adds. In the US, the Pentagon has claimed that 96% of security breaches go undetected. And it should know: In 1995, there were some 250,000 attempts to hack into Pentagon systems. Alarmingly, Barrett states that most of these attempts were successful. In the course of his narrative, Barrett details how the judicial systems in both Europe and the US are struggling to counter computer crime; and how police are hamstrung because of the lack of established procedures for collecting digital evidence. He also explains how the international nature of the Internet serves to aid criminal elements ranging from the single vandal to the international drug baron. He shows how systems administrators often unwittingly help by managing their systems with an eye for easy access for legitimate users, rather than keeping out the illegitimate hacker. In short, he explains exactly why the bad guys are winning and how hard they’re laughing at us.
Digital Crime covers gripping subject matter. However, the book is no thriller. Despite occasional attempts at injecting drama, the prose is not exactly a joy to read – this is not Accidental Empires with hackers. Having said that, the book isn’t a dry, scholarly text either. Perhaps ‘straightforward’ is the best description – although the narrative does occasionally dip into the kind of language used by lawyers. Perhaps these patches of legalese are inevitable given the subject matter. But don’t let that put you off. If you or your company depend upon the information held in your computers, then your company is at risk. If you’re connected to the Net, that risk is increased immeasurably. I recommend that you consider reading this book to find out how and why – and more importantly what you might do about it. The Internet of 1980 is now a distant but cherished memory, states Neil Barrett in his conclusion. The Information Superhighway of 2000 is a vision – it can be the most exciting environment we have ever built, or it can be the technological equivalent of a blighted inner-city, no-go area, patrolled by vigilantes, hacker-gangs and con-men; worse still, it could be the battlefield of the future. The choice is ours.
Digital Crime: Policing the Cybernation. Published by Kogan Page Ltd. ISBN 0-7494-2097-9