Over the last 18 months, an ominous change has swept across the Internet. The threat landscape once dominated by the worms and viruses unleashed by irresponsible hackers is now ruled by a new breed of cybercriminals.
Cybercrime is one of the fastest-growing criminal activities on the planet. Covering a huge range of illegal activity including financial scams, computer hacking, downloading pornographic images from the internet, virus attacks, stalking by e-mail and creating websites that promote racial hatred.
Motivated by fraud and typified by the bogus emails sent by "phishers" that aim to steal personal information. The tools driving their attacks and fueling the blackmarket are crimeware - bots, Trojan horses, and spyware.
The cost is staggering. Last year the German foreign minister Joschka Fischer recently put the global figure at more than $40bn a year. "Without doubt, this is only the beginning," he told an international conference. "Data espionage and data theft, credit card fraud, child pornography, far-right extremism and terrorists are ever more common on the internet."
The term hacking was originally used to describe an audacious practical joke, but has become better known as a term for the activities of computer enthusiasts who pit their skills against the IT systems of governments and big corporations. The handiwork of some hackers, or "crackers" as they are known in the computer industry, has had disastrous results. The "love-bug" virus crippled at least 45 million computers worldwide and caused billions of dollars worth of damage.
Then there is fraud and extortion. Some hackers have broken into the computer systems of banks and other businesses, with the intention of stealing money - or information like credit card numbers, which are just as valuable to the criminal. So what’s being done to combat this wave of cyber crime? Well, most government agencies agree that the key to fighting cyber crime is through international cooperation.
A good example of that cooperation is today's international 24/7 network of cyber investigators. The network, established among the G8 nations in 1997, has since grown to 55 member countries, all of which have dedicated cyber crime investigators who can respond to fast-moving cases at a moment's notice -- often with the ability to "fast freeze" e-mail traffic and other stored electronic data, which can preserve a crook's otherwise fleeting digital footprint.
This level of timely cooperation is essential. But cooperation needs to go hand in hand with consistent laws for cyber crimes and uniform penalties must be adopted, or savvy cyber crooks will simply base their operations in countries with the most lax cyber laws. The bottom line is to make sure there are consequences for criminal cyber actions and similar consequences everywhere. Otherwise, the world can expect the bad guys to enjoy the free ride.