Virtually non-existent two decades ago, cybercrime has become one of the fastest growing criminal enterprises around the world. Estimates peg the global cost of crimes ranging from malware to data theft at about $100 billion a year. And it's growing. Efforts to combat the problem have taken on urgency, but, there is growing debate on how best to foil hi-tech offenders.
It doesn’t matter who you are or where you live - if you have access to a computer, you are a potential target for cyber criminals.
And it’s not just individuals at risk.
Earlier this month, U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of New York, Loretta Lynch, charged eight people for launching cyber attacks on foreign banks that could have netted $45 million.
“This was a 21st century bank heist that reached through the Internet to span the globe. But instead of guns and masks, this cybercrime organization used laptops and malware,” Lynch said.
Alan Edwards, president of the web security consulting firm Whitehorse Technology Solutions, says the foiled heist, and recent revelations that U.S. missile defense systems may have been breached by Chinese hackers, underscore the growing sophistication of cyber criminals.
“They’ve changed from being 14 year-old geniuses who are bored, just trying to crash the system to cause trouble, to now organized crime, to government-sponsored, quite frankly,” Edwards said.
Edwards’ company specializes in providing real time web traffic security and monitoring.
He says not everyone likes the added expense to pay for this until they realize a successful attack would cost much more.
“Unfortunately it’s like car insurance or any other insurance. You really hate paying for it, until you have an accident,” Edwards said.
While beefed up network security is crucial criminology professor David Maimon, of the University of Maryland, says that's only half the solution.
“The way we’re doing things right now in computer science, and in our attempt to solve this issue, is by simply focusing on the network and the computers. And that would be the equivalent of a criminologist trying to figure out why an individual committed a crime by focusing on the gun or the door,” Maimon said.
Among Maimon's more controversial findings is the correlation between the number of foreign students logged into the college network and the frequency and origin of the cyber attacks.
“In other words, what we find is that increasing the number of foreign students that arrive from specific countries increases the probability of our campus to receive attacks from those specific countries by around 40 percent,” Maimon said.
Maimon says more research is needed, but one explanation may be that foreign students are surfing compromised websites in their own countries giving hackers new pathways to exploit. Maimon's research hopes to break new ground by examining the motivations behind recent cyber attacks and how a potential victim's online behavior can enable or discourage future attacks.