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New Zealand's longest-running online daily news and commentary publication, now in its 23rd year. The opinion pieces presented here are not purported to be fact but reasonable effort is made to ensure accuracy.

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Data heists, the new bank robbery

20 June 2017

There was a time when, if you wanted quick money, you just robbed a bank.

Well, that's if you were a person disposed to breaking the law that is.

Of course robbing a bank carries a lot of risk. You could be caught, injured or even killed whilst attempting to separate a banking institution from its reserves of cash.

And these days there are even more reasons not to rob a bank.

Cash is becoming increasingly inconvenient and hard to use in a way that doesn't attract the attention of authorities. Just try withdrawing or depositing a few thousand dollars in cash in a totally legal and legitimate manner and you'll find that your actions ring bells, trigger alarms and warrant closer inspection by the money-keepers.

Governments have passed laws that require large cash transactions to be reported and the identities of those engaging in them to be obtained.

And of course, that would make it much harder to dispose of a few million in used $20 notes.

So if bank robberies are not only perilous but also difficult to use as a method of securing any real, useful wealth, what is someone with contempt for the law to do these days to earn a dishonest living?

Well why not turn to computers and instead of stealing money, steal data!

Data abounds on the Internet, it's loaded with it and much of that data is very, very poorly secured.

Using a few VPNs and anonymising proxies is a much more effective way of disguising your identity than a black balaclava and you're safe from bullets, dogs and zealous security guards if you conduct a data-heist from the safety of your bedroom -- snug and warm on a cold winter's evening.

What's more, once you've got this valuable data, you can ransom it or flog it to the highest bidder using Bitcoin or some other cyber currency that, once again, provides you with a cloak of invisibility when it comes to being tracked.

With all this in mind, is it any wonder that ransomware, data theft and other cyber-crimes are now far, far more popular than good, old-fashioned bank robbery?

If you analyse the statistics you'll see that the vast majority of bank robbers get caught and locked up for a goodly amount of time, whereas only a tiny percentage of those engaged in cybercrime ever see the walls of a courtroom or jail cell.

Now some of the world's best criminal minds will have been watching all this unfold and are, no doubt, also thinking along similar lines.

We know that major Eastern European crime syndicates are behind a great deal of the cybercrime coming from that part of the world already but I'm thinking that the corporatisation of cybercrime has only just begun. In the coming years you can expect to see far more capital (in both financial and human terms) thrown into the area of hacking and extorting over the Net.

How great it must be that Johnny "router" Robberski can collect a million dollars in extortion money from some corporation in the USA at three in the afternoon and still be at the kitchen table, ready for a nice hot plate of borscht at dinner time.

Of course the fact that so many Net users give only a token thought to security makes it so much easier for some folk to pull off the perfect data-heist anyway.

So, this is all the more reason for governments to step away from the concept of back-doors, state-sanctioned hacking and the creation of tools such as those that were recently heisted from the NSA. All these things make the cybercrim's life just so much easier.

Given the low risks and potentially very high rewards associated with cybercrime, is there anything we can really do to prevent it?

Should there be criminal sanctions for those government organisations (or their contractors) who, through negligence, allow others to steal valuable data?

And why is it that the uploading of a movie, TV show or music recording seems to attract a much higher penalty than the theft of personal data or valuable technology secrets?

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