The new Internet cops

We have long lived in a cops-and-robbers society, where the good guys catch the bad guys. Yet in the online world, the long arm of the law is noticeably shorter.

The onus of policing the Internet still falls primarily on business, not government. In the physical world, should someone come into your shop and steal a CD, it's not up to you as the shop owner to collect evidence and take the individual into custody. It's the responsibility of the police. But that's not the case online.

Things are beginning to change, though. In the US the Justice Department earlier this year launched Operation E-Con, a crackdown on cybercrime that has resulted in the arrests of more than 100 suspects who allegedly collectively swindled an estimated 89,000 victims out of $US176 million.

Still, traditional law enforcement agencies are ill prepared to address the novel forms of cybercrime, including auction fraud, identity theft, slander, defamation, cyberstalking, infringement of intellectual property, corporate theft, pornography and more. And cybercrime is growing fast. Last year, the Internet Fraud Complaint Centre, a partnership between the FBI and the National White Collar Crime Centre, received more than 75,000 complaints, 67 per cent more than in 2001.

The absence of government enforcement has even given rise to online vigilantism. On eBay, for example, sophisticated participants who suspect a scam will bid an exorbitant amount to win an auction but then won't pay, effectively nullifying the auction. As with all vigilante efforts, the innocent get punished along with the bad guys.

And then there's music. A market research study recently revealed that 43 million Americans - half of all those connected to the Internet - use file-sharing software that allows them to copy music without paying for it. Yet the recording industry is left to sue Internet service providers to disclose the names of individual users one at a time. Why are companies suing instead of district attorneys prosecuting?

Today, pirates feel a sense of safety in numbers. Antipiracy approaches that scale to a significant proportion of those numbers are needed. Some foreign governments are attacking such problems from the top down by altering the infrastructure. For example, Newsweek reported that China has worked with technology providers to deploy routers that have been altered to allow the tracing of communications by citizens.

Punitive measures must also change. Hacker Kevin Mitnick's three-year banishment from the Internet - a condition of his parole - may be seen as an early example of what might be termed "e-punishment". Government may avail itself of more precise tools that prevent violators from contacting certain individuals or organisations, engaging in particular commercial activities or using particular services.

Such measures may smack of Big Brother, but in practice they may be more humane and economical than more traditional punitive measures. They are feasible, however, only if government and business cooperate.

Consider the problem of inspecting shipments at a border. Only by linking real-time online supply chain and relevant security information resources can business and government ensure that imports aren't at risk of becoming national security concerns. In fact, we may find that some of the capabilities of enterprise software may make them dual-use technologies.

Such scenarios could leave the impression that government will soon take over the online world. This misses the point. Instead, it is more reasonable to expect that a combination of technology, private business and government will act to fill the vacuum left by the absence of government.

Andrew Fano is a senior researcher at Accenture Technology Labs

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