One Hack Of A Crime Wave, Or So They Say

Keep calm and carry on: cyber crime is not the threat it’s made out to be. There is no better fodder for naked fearmongering than crime conducted online. You’ve about heard them all: Nigerian scams, 410 scams, and phishing scams. Banking fraud, credit card fraud, hackers, viruses and keystroke loggers. And there’s spam, zombies, malware, spoofing, scareware, worms, etc.
And there are the biggies: cyber crime, cyber terrorism, and full-blown cyber war. Typically these threats are all merged into each other, blurred by fearmongers to create a picture of a risky Wild West online. They feed into a fear that technology has somehow got out of control, a fear that our lives have become more dangerous as we’ve been sucked online.
On Tuesday, ABC’s 7.30 cited the usual mix, warning of everything from petty identity theft to the ”cyber crime underworld”. The show claimed proceeds of cyber crime were now more than proceeds from illicit drugs. The next day, the federal government announced it would sign the Council of Europe convention on cyber crime – a treaty for international co-operation.
The size of any illegal industry is hard to estimate. But the claim that cyber crime is now a bigger concern than the drug trade relies entirely on an off-the-cuff remark made by a consultant to the US Treasury Department in 2005: ”Last year was the first year that proceeds from cyber crime were greater than proceeds from the sale of illegal drugs, and that was, I believe, over $US105 billion.”
Last week’s 7.30 interviewed a US defence contractor saying cyber crime was now $US3 trillion. At that price, cyber crime is the fifth-biggest economy in the world, slightly below Germany. It doesn’t ring true. Cyber crime would be the biggest crime wave in human history – hackers stealing an entire German economy every single year. Of course, we mostly hear these gargantuan numbers from consultants (drumming up business from law enforcement) and internet security companies (trying to sell software).
A new paper by researchers from Microsoft – Sex, Lies, and Cyber crime Surveys – explains why estimates of cyber crime have become so absurdly large. The authors, Dinei Florencio and Cormac Herley, point out that the bulk of what we know comes from tiny surveys. The authors found at least 75 per cent of losses were extrapolated from just one or two unverified, cases.
In other words, one bloke falls for the old ”I’m a prince from Nigeria” scam, and it is reported that cyber crime is a $3 trillion industry. This is not to deny that criminals use the internet.
But crime is crime, whether it’s online or not. Many cyber crimes are just digital variations of old cons. The Nigerian scam was originally conducted by post.
And much cyber crime is just vandalism, hard to police, but not hard to protect against. Lock your gate, use complicated and varied passwords, make backups. Don’t trust foreign princes or popups. Accept the updates for your anti-virus software. Make sure internet companies you deal with are responsible.
These are all pretty simple, and they will protect you from 90 per cent of the danger. Education is more necessary here than legislation. The majority of online transactions are safe. And certainly no reason to give government a blank cheque for any new law it wants.
Some of the proposals to deal with the cyber crime ”epidemic” have serious civil liberties issues. The treaty the federal government intends to sign may mean Australian internet service providers have to store records of every website we visit, and every person we email, just in case the police need it later.
We like to complain about privacy and Facebook, but that will be nothing compared with the massive amount of data compulsorily stored by our internet provider. Apart from the privacy implications, that requirement itself could increase online risk. There’s little more attractive to criminals than large banks of data stored in one place.
All the hype about cyber crime is nothing compared with the noises made by defence contractors and American military commanders who have been stoking fears of ”cyber war” and ”cyber terrorism”. But even the most famous instances of cyber war – like the StuxNet virus, which damaged Iran’s nuclear program in 2010 – are more hype than reality. StuxNet was trotted into an Iranian enrichment facility on a USB stick. It was plain, old espionage. So, next time you read of the dangers online, consider: the seriousness of the threat is inversely proportional to the number of uses of the word ”cyber”. There are risks online. But they are manageable.

Talking the talk on walking the beat

Tony Abbott’s “Action Contract” has always sounded like it might be a gimmick to sell tickets to a Jerry Bruckheimer movie. This week, we learnt more about the plot: a crackdown on gangs.

In Melbourne on Thursday, Tony Abbott proposed an anti-gang squad (no doubt comprised of misfits and ne’er-do-wells with shady backstories) under the auspices of the Australian Crime Commission.

Law and order is an old political favourite. The Coalition is offering millions of Commonwealth dollars for closed circuit television (CCTV), a knife action plan, and a database of gang activity.

Julia Gillard, in Melbourne on the same day, promised that her government would clamp down on the importation of exotic weaponry.

They’re already hard to import; she would make it slightly harder.

It says a lot about the condition of Victoria that the two leaders launched these policies here. If Sydney voters are uneasy because there are too many people, we’re uneasy because we think too many of those people want to stab us.

That’s the aim of retail politics – to sell you more of the anxieties you already have.

But law and order is a strange topic for a federal election campaign. After all, policing is a state issue. It’s one of the few mostly state issues left. The federal government doesn’t have operational control over the forces – and without police, you can’t be serious about crime reduction.

So, we’re getting minor proposals puffed up as major policy changes, as the parties try to own an issue they cannot.

Abbott said he would seek to “work with the states” to expand police-search powers. But in Victoria, the Brumby government is already giving the police more extensive and draconian powers for warrantless body searches. So what does Abbott think the Coalition is offering?

Certainly, there are things the federal government can control, such as customs and federal police.

But all that’s really happening is the feeding of a perception that state governments have lost control of their streets. Pity there’s little either federal party could really do about it.

This week’s duelling law and order announcements by the national leaders also gave us a small peek into the banality of local politics.

In their own electorates, federal candidates on both sides obsess over the number of officers at police stations, whether certain intersections need right-hand turn arrows, and the “scourge” of graffiti. One Liberal proudly states on his website “we need to put more police on the streets”. If he gets the role in federal Parliament he is auditioning for, we can only hope he’ll write a passionate letter to his state counterparts suggesting just that.

If federal politicians really want to talk about law and order, they could always copy John Brumby – leave Canberra and move into state politics.

Otherwise, it’s just talk. No real action.

Human Rights? Sorry, We’d Rather Strip-Search Children

What’s the point of having a charter of human rights if it just gets ignored?

The Summary Offences and Control of Weapons Acts Amendment 2009 is burrowing its way through State Parliament at the moment. Designed to tackle “knife violence”, this bill will give police an extraordinary new array of powers, including the power to fine people for being disorderly, for being drunk and disorderly, and for being just plain drunk. And police will be able to kick people out of any area if they think they might become disorderly.

Most disturbingly, the bill will give police the power to search anyone without needing to show any sort of reasonable suspicion they might be doing or carrying anything illegal. Searches can be done completely at random.

Oh, and children and the disabled can be strip-searched.

Sound a bit draconian? It is. In fact, the Government even says it’s a human rights violation – these police powers are contrary to its own 2006 human rights charter. Police Minister Bob Cameron told State Parliament the new bill “is incompatible with the charter to the extent that it limits rights”, but, well, too bad for rights, because “the government intends to proceed with the legislation in its current form”.

Cameron told The Sunday Age recently “people have a right to privacy, but they also have a right not to be stabbed”. That’s certainly true. But there’s no escalating knife violence in Melbourne. Police statistics show that in the past two years, assaults where a knife was brandished or used declined by 2.9 per cent. But even if they were increasing, would giving police the power to search anybody be the best solution?

Police can only do these arbitrary searches within “designated areas”. But the police commissioner designates the areas. He only needs to suspect there might be some disorder in that area, or has been in the past. I’m fairly sure some sort of “disorder” has happened in even the most bourgeois suburbs in the past year.

When you give police extra powers, you increase the chance that power will be abused. And the victims of police abuse will, more often than not, be minorities and youths. “Random” searches are never statistically random; they’re arbitrary. Police will be able to target whoever they want, without the restraint of having to suspect their targets are doing anything wrong.

But most importantly, if our human rights charter doesn’t prevent governments giving police the power to randomly search children, it can’t be much of a charter.

Politicians like to talk big about how they can protect human rights. The National Human Rights Consultation told Federal Parliament in September that an awareness of basic human rights should be enshrined in our education system and culture. And the debate over a federal bill of rights has covered such lofty issues as parliamentary sovereignty and the role of the judiciary in our constitutional system.

It’s a great debate. But if our experience of the Victorian charter is any indication, all those weighty arguments are moot. Victoria’s knife control bill shows that governments only respect human rights charters when they want to.

And this bill is hardly the only example. The Victorian charter claims “people have the right to hold opinions without interference” but this is hard to reconcile with the Racial and Religious Tolerance Act, which makes “severe ridicule” of religious people unlawful. And how do we square Victorian Attorney-General Rob Hulls’ threat to shut down private men’s clubs with the charter’s claim we ‘have the right to assemble peacefully”? The entrepreneur who tried to set up a women-only travel company, just to be told it would breach the Equal Opportunity Act, might be sceptical she holds “the right to freely associate with others”.

The Victorian Government’s doublethink about human rights might be understandable if it was ignoring a pesky restriction on its powers imposed by a previous government. But Hulls was the one who pushed the charter through in the first place.

It seems human rights and governments are a marriage of convenience. If politicians find a more attractive political aim to pursue, our basic human rights are cuckolded and abandoned.

More Police, Fewer Daft Ideas, The Answer To City Violence

Everybody has an idea how to fix the problem of “alcohol-fuelled” violence in the city. Last week, the Victorian Parliament tried another idea. It granted the liquor licensing authority $17.6million a year for 30 new “civil compliance inspectors” to patrol the city’s nightlife and fine pub owners. These inspectors can also enter premises without warrants if they suspect license breaches, and demand the names and addresses of patrons.

But surely there are certain legal powers in a liberal democracy that should be only held by the police? Police go through extensive education about the legal and practical limits of their powers. They are accountable to their superiors.

By contrast, the primary qualification that these new liquor inspectors require is the ability to pass a police check. They also apparently have to be of “good repute, character, honesty and integrity” – qualities that are hard to determine from a resume submitted via the internet. Should we be really giving such rudimentarily qualified bureaucrats a fair chunk of the powers of the police force?

Six months after the 2am lockout of Melbourne’s clubs and pubs resoundingly failed – late night violence went up during that period, not down – it is understandable that governments are trying new ideas to tackle the problem.

By far the most surreal idea to restrain city brawling has been Lord Mayor Robert Doyle’s recent proposal to make the hailing of taxis on the street illegal every Friday and Saturday night. He wants to direct all taxi-seekers to four giant taxi ranks around the city.

How this idea actually connects to the problem of violence isn’t entirely clear. Doyle’s plan appears to depend on the not entirely convincing theory that drunks would be less violent if they were all put in the same spot and told to wait for half an hour in a queue.

Other ideas to reduce violence are not much more convincing. Should we really ban the sale of single shots of liquor, as local governments have done in many smaller towns around the country? (Only if you believe that violent thugs exclusively drink Midori slammers.) Or should we stop people from purchasing more than a few drinks at a time, as they have done in NSW? (This rule effectively makes the Australian custom of buying rounds illegal.)

In fact, in NSW they are even stopping bars from serving alcohol for a 10-minute period every hour after midnight. In that 10-minute time-out, bar staff have to refuse any request for alcohol and offer water instead, even to those who lined up to be served well before the time-out began. Understandably, this policy tends to make drinkers more aggressive, not less.

Australians have a proud history of making a mockery of silly drinking laws – the legendary six o’clock swill was, after all, a massively counterproductive result of restrictions on the sale of alcohol. Getting around annoying regulations is just as much an Australian custom as buying rounds for mates.

Anyway, just because somebody comes up with an idea that will make buying alcohol harder, or more expensive, or just less fun, doesn’t mean that idea will prevent violent idiots from hitting each other at the end of the night.

If there’s one thing about Australian public debate, everybody has a lot of bright ideas – we don’t lack for initiatives or proposals or different ways to do things.

Every year small publishers release a few dozen books with titles like Reinventing Australia’s Green Future into the Next Century of Prosperity, or 27 Social Ideas for a Good Australia Now. These books are inevitably filled with possible new laws and government spending initiatives that are certainly creative, but are usually totally nuts.

Indeed, the only accomplishment of Kevin Rudd’s long-forgotten 2020 summit was to show just how many stupid ideas there actually were floating out there in intellectual-land – ideas that were vague, bizarre or, like the Lord Mayor’s taxi rank plan, completely disconnected from the problems they were trying to solve.

Government policies should be as direct as possible. The Government shouldn’t just arbitrarily punish drinkers and liquor licensees in the dreamy hope that the results will be politically beneficial.

While state and local governments have been dithering about with their own creative punishments for taxi hailers and pub owners, the most direct way to tackle violence still remains an increased police presence.

Unfortunately, like his predecessor Christine Nixon, new Chief Commissioner Simon Overland seems to believe that creative new regulations, not more police on the streets, will provide a solution to the city’s violence problem.

Sure, thinking outside the box is great. But when it comes to problems of law and order, don’t forget the box is there.

Politics And The Top Cop

Being the Chief Commissioner of Victoria Police sounds like a terrible job. In the aftermath of Christine Nixon’s announcement to step down as Victoria’s top cop, her political masters have been full of praise, but her colleagues in crime fighting have been less complimentary. The upper echelons of the police force seem to be drenched in personal animosity and rivalry.

Some of Nixon’s critics really deserve to be ignored. In the wake of her resignation, the Victorian Police Association chose to emphasise that the most important thing the next chief commissioner should possess is a birth certificate from Victoria. Fair enough – unions are paid to look after their members first. But they could at least pretend not to have naked self-interest as their only focus.

Nevertheless, in March Nixon will leave Victoria Police with a mixed record at best. High-profile corruption scandals, the gangland killings, internal police reforms, her approach to domestic violence and community-based policing strategies have dominated the discussion about her successes or otherwise. The Government’s effusive praise of Nixon, however, ignores the increasing problems of basic law and order that have developed under her stewardship.

Yes, in aggregate, crime has gone down in recent years. Since 2001, when Nixon was appointed Chief Commissioner, the total crime rate has dropped by nearly 25%.

But the word “crime” is so broad as to be almost useless. If we look closely at the official police statistics, the Nixon legacy is much less impressive. Since 2002, crimes against the person – that is, homicide, rape, sex offences, assault and abduction – have jumped from fewer than 36,000 to nearly 43,000 incidents a year.

Instead of tackling this dramatic increase in violent crime, Victoria Police has been focusing on aggressive “blitzes” against utterly banal offences like jaywalking – that ridiculous crime committed by nearly everybody every day.

Show me someone who has never jaywalked and I’ll show you someone who has never left the house. Sure, the police should try to enforce every crime on their books, but they should also be a bit sensible about it.

The State Government could quadruple the number of police on the streets and still not successfully eliminate the scourge of jaywalking.

Can they really justify deploying Victoria Police’s limited resources on Swanston Street at 8am on Monday mornings when there is a violence problem on King Street at 4am every night?

Criticising the police force’s periodic jaywalking crackdowns might seem petty, but it actually raises some important questions about the rule of law in Victoria. Jaywalking is the sort of crime that most police would ignore, except for those times when there is a “blitz”. Enforcing one of the State Government’s most ridiculous social regulations does little more than annoy otherwise entirely law-abiding pedestrians.

Victorian police are proud that there has been an increase in the rate at which crimes are being solved. But much of this is because of cultural changes that have encouraged individuals to report cases of domestic violence and rape that have historically gone under-reported.

It is, of course, wonderful that Victoria’s thugs are being identified and caught after they assault someone. But from the victim’s perspective, it would be better not to be assaulted at all – no amount of detective work will encourage bruises to heal quicker.

The vast majority of Nixon’s highly publicised drop in overall crime rates is found in the category of crime against property – you are certainly less likely to be burgled or have your bike stolen than you were five years ago. But again, Victoria Police cannot really take too much credit for the increased use of bike locks, or the prevalence of storefront security guards, or for the increased popularity of home alarm systems.

If we look even closer at the crime statistics, the true state of Victorian crime becomes more worrying. Over recent years, crimes against the person have increasingly been seen in public, rather than private, locations – on public transport, in open spaces, on streets and sidewalks; the sorts of places that require regular patrolling.

It is these crime patterns that form the basis of the recent panic about violence in the city – a rare occasion in politics when there actually is fire where there is smoke. The 2am lockout may have been inept, ill-considered and unpopular, but it was actually trying to tackle a genuine problem: there just aren’t enough police on the streets to prevent crime.

Unfortunately, Nixon has chosen to emphasise that the violence in the city has been “booze-fuelled” – a description that tries to shift the blame for the sharp increase in urban violence off the police and on to Melbourne’s bars and pubs. No matter what fuels violence, it still needs to be dealt with by the police on the street. Liquor licence changes will never be a substitute for more cops.

But since 2002, patrol hours have decreased by nearly one-quarter. The numbers of sworn operational staff have declined as a percentage of the total police force. It seems that much of the State Government’s increase in police resources has been absorbed by administrative staff and bureaucrats. No wonder the Police Association, when it is being more sensible, has argued that Victoria’s police force is understaffed by at least 3000 officers.

With a rising rate of assaults and urban violence, Christine Nixon’s biggest legacy may simply be making law and order a political issue once again.