Over more than a decade covering the information security beat, I’m repeatedly struck by the parallels between international cyber crime and the international drug trade. You can stretch the analogy thin by carrying it too far, but there are common conclusions to be drawn and lessons to be learned.
Both are often cast in terms of law enforcement problems, but neither drug trafficking nor cyber crime can be eradicated through law enforcement alone. In fact, neither are entirely solvable problems. In the end, it’s up to us to protect ourselves. Consider the drug trade. Periodically, we hear about some major seizure of illegal drugs the breakup of some distribution ring, the bust-up of some international drug cartel or the timely demise of some drug lord.
We see parallels in the battle against cyber crime. Law enforcement successes such as the takedown of McColo, which put a major dent in spam volume or the arrest and sentencing of master credit card thief Albert Gonzalez , are notable events. The Department of Justice list of cyber criminal arrests and sentences since the turn of the century is impressive until you step back and consider that it has been, after all, 11-plus years, and cyber crime has grown into a trillion dollar-plus industry over the same period. Big-time cyber criminals compete with each other for market share and sometimes eliminate each other, parallel to competing drug cartels. But the trades persist and thrive.
Cyber crime has become a bigger business than the drug trade, but neither is going to be defeated by law enforcement. The rewards are too great; a few arrests won’t stop other entrepreneurs.
For the most part, the sources of drugs and cyber crime is beyond our borders and, largely, out of our reach, difficult if not impossible to track. Investigation and, more important, prosecution relies on inconsistent and, in some cases, non-existent international cooperation.
We cannot even think about “wining” either the war on drugs or the fight against international cyber crime without unacceptable restrictions on our liberties or closing our borders or strangling access to the Internet (supporters of PIPA and SOPA take note). That’s not going to happen.
Law enforcement is important and necessary. There must be consequences for criminal activity, and persistent efforts can help contain criminal activity. However, police and the FBI can arrest cyber fraudsters and thieves, drug dealers and distributors, but criminals will continue to thrive in our midst. it is incumbent on all of us to look to our own resources and resolve to protect our lives and businesses. Pessimistic? No. Realistic. Let’s not think in terms of winning the battle against cyber crime, but defending ourselves and thriving in spite of it.
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