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We need the Internet police now more than ever

May 05, 20155 mins
Data and Information SecurityEmail ClientsInternet

Beyond the reach of traditional policing, Internet crime calls for a new kind of law enforcement agency

Many years ago I received spam from a woman I did not know. It was the type of spam where I could tell that her computer was compromised by a bot. That is, the spammer wasn’t simply using her email address and sending the email from somewhere else. With the best of intentions I emailed her to let her know I was an Internet security professional, and I had received a spam email from her computer indicating it was actively infected. I told her what to do to clean it.

Her reply was very defensive and went something like this: “I’m tired of you people accusing me of sending out viruses and infecting my machine. If you don’t stop emailing me I’m going to report you to the Internet police!” I calmly replied that I was a good guy trying to help. But she said she had reported me to the Internet police and I was surely to be arrested soon.

I chuckled then — and still chuckle now — over her threat to call the “Internet police.” But how I wished there was such a law enforcement body. Isn’t it time we had an Internet police?

Internet crime is rampant. Spam still compromises more than half of all email. Distributed denial-of-service attacks are growing bigger and more frequent. Nearly every company has been actively hacked or could easily be hacked. Our personal and financial information is stolen multiple times a year. Nation-states are hacking the world’s biggest companies and revealing all of their emails and data. Ransomware is locking up our personal details and asking for money. Could it be any worse?

Wouldn’t it be nice if we could pick up the phone or email the official Internet police? I can see the commercial now: “One call does it all!” or “One email and we are on their tail!” I know, my proposal will never see the light of day. But it’s a shame we can’t attempt something like this. Sadly, our traditional law enforcement agencies can’t do much to fight Internet crime, for a number of reasons.

First, most Internet crime crosses legal jurisdictions. You can gather all the evidence and court orders you want, but China, Nigeria, and Russia are not going to serve up warrants from the United States, and vice versa. Although many countries have specific cooperative agreements and treaties concerning computer crime, the biggest players don’t. It’s why ransomware is taking off these days. Russia’s government allows it, and other countries can’t do anything to stop it.

Second, most law enforcement bodies are heavily focused on the real world. Most agents and officers don’t have specialized Internet crime and digital forensics training; if they do, it’s typically a few days of classes. Most departments are lucky to have a single person who can do computer crime investigation.

In the real world, the cops often warn us of popular scams, missing persons, and armed felons on the loose. In my home state of Florida, we have digital road signs to ask people to look out for missing or kidnapped kids (part of the national Amber Alert program). I get texts to my cellphone about local crimes and where to report them. There’s no official counterpart for Internet threats.

Third, there is no central neighborhood watch program in the digital world, and people don’t know where to report what. If I get infected by ransomware or fall prey to a phishing attack, do I report it to Microsoft, the FCC, the FBI, or my local law enforcement department?

Wouldn’t it be nice if you had one email address and one phone number to report all Internet crime, and the agency at the other end would handle everything else? I would be willing to pay for it, and I bet you would too. We could put a 1 percent tax on all Internet access point payments and fund a new global Internet crime department. That department would work with their local counterparts to coordinate investigations, evidence collection, and arrests.

We could simply forward all spam emails in our inbox to one email address to make sure it was investigated with all of the others. Then the Internet police could help update everyone’s antispam filters to block future spam from the same origin or in the same format. Antispam vendors already do this, but I’m talking about a global database where everyone participates. It’s going to be hard for the spammers to stay in business when their millions of spams are blocked after they’ve sent only 10.

The Internet police could investigate all kinds of spam and either help to arrest the perpetrators or penalize their home countries for not doing more to stop them. Don’t want to help us stop ransomware? No problem, we’ll inform all of our participating, law-abiding countries that you’re evil and uncooperative, and suggest they block Internet traffic from your country on their routers. It reminds me of the warning signs I see in airports that purport to tell me which countries don’t have effective security controls and advise me not to visit. A little pain would make all countries enforce a baseline set of cyber laws. 

Years ago, when that lady threatened me with contacting the Internet police, little did she know I would have loved if she could do it.


Roger A. Grimes is a contributing editor. Roger holds more than 40 computer certifications and has authored ten books on computer security. He has been fighting malware and malicious hackers since 1987, beginning with disassembling early DOS viruses. He specializes in protecting host computers from hackers and malware, and consults to companies from the Fortune 100 to small businesses. A frequent industry speaker and educator, Roger currently works for KnowBe4 as the Data-Driven Defense Evangelist and is the author of Cryptography Apocalypse.

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