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The outlaws of cyberspace

By David Wilson

Today began with an email stating that someone had tried to log in to my bank account using incorrect information; I wouldn’t be able to access my account until I clicked on a link at the bottom of the message. The day ended with a robocall congratulating me on winning 9,999 Canadian Tire dollars that I could collect by pressing “1” now.

It was pretty obvious that both were scams. The message from the bank looked authentic, but the syntax was a dead giveaway: “Within [bank’s name] latest security checks, we recently discovered that today there were 3 incorrect login attempts to your account.” The Canadian Tire windfall? The voice on the other end of the line has previously called to congratulate me on winning free airline credits and cruises to the Bahamas.

It was actually a pretty slow day for scams. Most days my inbox and voicemail are full of them. No doubt yours are too — someone fishing for credit card information, offering to fix a problem for a computer you don’t own, announcing a million-dollar windfall, or warning that you could go to prison if you don’t respond to the sender immediately. The list is endless.

Cybercrime is spreading like a runaway pathogen. The 2013 Norton Report released by computer security giant Symantec estimated that the global cost of cybercrime had hit US $113 billion a year and was affecting one million people every day. The study showed that the cost of cybercrime in Canada had doubled to $3 billion in just one year, and that seven million Canadians had been victims.

Seven million? That’s about 20 percent of the population. Norton defines cybercrime in broad strokes because it sells products to defend against it. So its definition ranges from attempted scams to serious offences such as identity theft. Still, if seven million Canadians a year were victims of, say, a minor crime such as pickpocketing or even attempted pickpocketing, I’m pretty sure we’d demand that our law enforcement agencies hit back. Curiously, though, we’re blasé: no one likes to be targeted by scammers, but on the whole we tolerate it. We invent harder-to-hack passwords, cleanse our hard drives and learn to be cyber savvy.

The Internet is like a recently discovered continent, full of riches but also chaotic and dangerous. Seemingly, we accept lawlessness as a fact of frontier life and aren’t yet willing to run the outlaws out of town. But with cybercrime spreading unchecked — Norton estimates that it affects 18 people a second worldwide — the day may not be far off.

The Internet is already nominally regulated. Is increased regulation the answer to cybercrime? How much do you limit individual freedoms in order to fight criminal misuse of the Internet? These are values-based questions we should be asking now. But on the whole we’re not, nor are our government leaders. The 13-year-old UN Convention on Cybercrime has proven largely toothless. More recently, a 2012 UN telecommunications treaty gave governments more clout to combat cybercrime. But Canada and several other western nations snubbed it, citing mainly ideological reasons.

Unlike the geographic continents, no one can really claim sovereignty over the Internet. That’s partly why it’s so lawless and why it’s so rich with promise — ideally, it belongs to everyone, and ideally the global community will decide how it develops. I hope we can eventually agree that it should be a place that embodies humanity’s better instincts. It would be a crime to allow it to become the domain of scoundrels.  

Author's photo
David Wilson is the editor-publisher of The Observer.
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