Cybercrime in the Year 2025
By Stephens, Gene
IN 1981, CRIMINAL-JUSTICE SCHOLAR GENE STEPHENS WROTE AN ARTICLE FOR THE FUTURIST ON “CRIME IN THE YEAR 2000,” AND IN 1995, AN ARTICLE ON “CRIME IN CYBERSPACE.” IN BOTH, HE SUGGESTED THE ROLE THE COMPUTER AND INTERNET WOULD PLAY IN CRIME AND CRIME FIGHTING IN THE FUTURE. HERE, HE REVIEWS WHAT HE GOT RIGHT, WHAT HE GOT WRONG, AND WHY, AND HE SUGGESTS THE TYPES OF CYBERCRIMES AND CYBERCRIME FIGHTING THAT WILL OCCUR BY THE YEAR 2025.
In a 1981 article for THE FUTURIST, I wrote, “Data from all areas of the [criminal justice] system will be computerized and cross-referenced. Computers will store the modus operandi of convicted felons, and when a crime occurs, police may call on the computer to name the most likely suspects, or, in some cases, the exact offender” (“Crime in the Year 2000,” April 1981). It seemed quite logical at the time, but the forecast turned out to be overly optimistic; I underestimated the antipathy to change and the turf protection within the system.
The first paragraph of a subsequent article was more on target: “Billions of dollars in losses have already been discovered. Billions more have gone undetected. Trillions will be stolen, most without detection, by the emerging master criminal of the twenty- first century-the cyberspace offender” (“Crime in Cyberspace,” September-October 1995). Admittedly vague, it still seems to be a fairly accurate evaluation of the evolution of cybercrime.
In the same article, I correctly forecast an explosion of cellular phone time theft and phone fraud; increased cyberattacks and fraud against government and business; massive credit card theft and fraud; internal theft of clients’ identities by financially struggling and/or greedy financial service employees; more cyberporn, cyberstalking, cyberharassment, and cybervengeance; and the use of biometrics and encryption as methods of protecting data in cyberspace.
In some other areas, my forecasts weren’t as accurate. My fascination with the embryonic field of nanotechnology led to a prediction of organic nanocomputers implanted in citizens’ brains by the early twentyfirst century. Related forecasts included terrorists sending subliminal messages directly to the brain implants of potential recruits, cyberextortion by hacking into brain implants and scrambling or threatening to scramble information in it, and the problem of people with brain implants being unable to a separate virtual reality created by cyberoffenders in flesh-and-blood reality. This forecast may yet come true, however, for it’s still early twenty-first century, and there is plenty of time for this technology and these disturbing crimes to begin to appear.
In the 1995 article, I was rather pessimistic about the short- term capacity of police to cope with emerging cybercrime:
The outlook for curtailing cyberspace crime by technology or conventional law-enforcement methods is bleak. Most agencies do not have the personnel or the skills to cope with such offenses?. Cybercrime cannot be controlled by conventional methods. Technology is on the side of the cyberspace offender and motivation is high- it’s fun, exciting, and profitable (p. 28).
My suggested solution, unfortunately, seems even more “Pollyanna” today than it did then: “the only real help is … conscience and personal values, the belief that theft, deception, and invasion of privacy are simply unacceptable.”
According to Ray Kurzweil’s “Law of Accelerating Returns,” technological change is exponential rather than linear; thus, “we won’t experience 100 years of progress in the twentyfirst century- it will be more like 20,000 years of progress (at today’s rate).” Predicting advances and their impacts on crime and crime fighting by 2025, then, is analogous to reviewing the next 5,000 years of technological progress in society.
Kurzweil himself made several forecasts that could have major implications for cybercrime; for instance, he said that by 2010 personal computers will be capable of answering questions by accessing information wirelessly via the Internet (this is one prediction that arrived a little early). By 2019, he held, a $1,000 personal computer will have as much raw power as the human brain; possibly more important, he believed that computer chips will be everywhere, embedded in furniture, jewelry, walls, clothing, and so on. Also by 2019, computers and humans would communicate via two- way speech and gestures rather than keyboards. Virtual sex via computer will become a reality, and education, business, and entertainment will also be increasingly computer based. Roadways would be automated and computer controlled, while human-robot relationships will be commonplace.
Possibly the most renowned of Kurzweil’s predictions is the coming of “the Singularity”-when computers become self-aware-and the melding of humans and machines. Kurzweil sees this process well under way by 2025 as nanobots begin to surf the human bloodstream on search-and-destroy missions to combat pathogens and data nanobots augment human intelligence and access to information. Transhumans will be on their way to having an internalized capacity to communicate and interact with humans, machines, and other transhumans.
TECHNOLOGY’S POTENTIAL IMPACTS ON CRIME
What follows are my forecasts for how these developments might affect crime and crime fighting over the next two decades.
Computer and Internet use will become increasingly seamless, as hands-free, voice-activated communications and data entry and retrieval will be commonplace by the early teen years of this new millennium (the 2010s). The world community will have moved a long way in a few short years, since by late 2007, 1.25 billion people already had access to the Internet, though only about 2% of the world population regularly accessed it. Science-fiction writer William Gibson, who coined the term cyberspace in his 1982 short story, “Burning Chrome,” forecasts that a fully wired world-a single unbroken interface without need for computers-will complete the evolution to full access of all Earth’s citizens.
The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) set up the Internet and fostered its early development, but DARPA will likely overhaul its invention in the 2010s. Not only will the outcome be faster and larger capacity usage, but also, by virtually starting over with the security aspects in mind, the future Internet will be safer and more difficult to attack and disable.
Nanotechnology will increasingly impact cyberspace by the late 2010s, and as we try to gain the most advantage possible from new technologies, new security gaps will emerge that could turn into nightmares if not handled carefully. For example, as data nanobots are implanted in users’ brains (later, organic bots will become an integral part of the individual), special attention will have to be paid to providing advanced firewalls to keep intruders from cracking into the bots and terrorizing the recipient. Could there be a more frightening crime than having your brain-stored knowledge erased or scrambled, or hearing voices threatening to destroy your memory unless you pay extravagant blackmail? Welcome to the prospects of mindstalking.
Designer nanobots may also be loosed on the World Wide Web to engender types of mischief and destruction not yet contemplated. All advanced technology has the capacity to be used for good or evil, depending on the developer/user; and nanotech would appear to be the ultimate example, as it literally can be used to develop either nanosize weapons that could destroy the world or nanosize defense systems that could protect the planet.
WHO’S IN CHARGE?
The exponentially improving capabilities of emerging Web technologies spotlights the long-ignored issues of who owns the World Wide Web, who manages it, and who has jurisdiction over it. The answer now is: Nobody! Can the world’s most powerful socio- politico-economic network continue to operate almost at random, open to all, and thus excessively vulnerable to cybercriminals and terrorists alike? Yet any attempt to restrict or police the Web can be expected to be met by extreme resistance from a plethora of users for a variety of reasons, many contradictory.
Another reasonable prediction would be that the Internet will become not only the number-one means of communicating, conducting business, socializing, entertaining, and just living, but indeed will handle a huge majority of such interactions; thus, failure to establish and enforce some basic ground rules will likely lead to socioeconomic disaster.
If exchange of resources is to be accomplished almost exclusively over the Internet, anonymous surfing will be a potential threat. Moving funds without identification could not only perpetrate individual fraud, but also bankrupt the system itself. Biometrics and more-advanced systems of ID will need to be perfected to protect users and the network. In addition, multinational cybercrime units will be required to catch those preying on users worldwide, as Web surfers in Arlington, Virginia, and Victoria, British Columbia, may be victims of cyberscams perpetrated in Cairo or Budapest. Coordination and cooperation will be keys to making the Internet a safer place to travel and conduct business.
THE MATRIX MAY BE REAL
Kurzweil predicts that the equivalent of 4,000 years of technological advancement will occur during the first two decades of the twenty-first century, so it is extremely difficult to forecast what will happen. The concepts, theories, and formulas for many of these changes have yet to emerge from the plethora of ongoing research and development. Still, some speculation is possible. For instance, every square meter of atmosphere hugging the earth may be filled with unseen nanodevices designed to provide seamless communication and surveillance among all people in all places. Humans will have nanoimplants, facilitating interaction in an omnipresent network. Everyone will have a unique Internet Protocol (IP) address.
Since nano-storage capacity is almost limitless, all activity and utterances by people everywhere will be recorded and recoverable. Transparency will become increasingly ubiquitous as word and deed- whether spoken or acted out in anger, frustration, or as a joke-can be almost instantly compared to “the record.” Can human or even transhuman behavior evolve rapidly enough to withstand such scrutiny? If current laws were enforced with this level of supporting evidence, who could pay for the prison space required to carry out the mandated punishment?
Another possibility would be the perfection of The Matrix, as Gibson envisioned in a series of popular books and movies, where a powerful central force controls all activity in a seemingly free society. The reaction in individualistic societies such as the United States would likely be similar to that in these fictional portrayals- rebellion, with a goal of destroying the web of control.
A counterforce that could create a different type of harm for the individual would be continuance of the policy of no control of the Internet, allowing often destructive activity- e.g., harassment, terrorism, and fraud-without jurisdiction and authority to curtail it. Which would be worse would depend on which value dominates- security (i.e., safety and order) or civil liberties (freedom and chaos). As always, the role of public safety in all this is to find the balancing point, where the degree of safety is enough to allow the pursuit of individual happiness.
CYBERCRIME PROGRESSION: PIGEON DROPS AND IDENTITY THEFT
As technology advances at a dizzying pace, so will the ways and means of those wishing to use the rapidly changing cyberspace as a tool/milieu for fun and profit, or worse. In the immediate future, the increasingly creative scams to bilk Internet users of their resources will continue, with literally scores of new schemes appearing daily on the Web. Sheiks, abandoned Russian women, and unclaimed lottery winnings will be joined by relatives seeking heirs and other electronic pigeon drops yet unimagined.
For those who burn with faith or passion for a cause, the Internet will continue to provide a means both to fleece infidels for funds to pursue their goals and to provide an avenue for recruiting others to their flock. The Internet presents opportunities to target one’s enemies for economic and even physical destruction via cyberterrorism.
Identity theft-already the number- one crime in the United States and rapidly expanding throughout the Internet world-can be expected to increase at a faster pace and wreak havoc on the financial and social worlds of millions around the globe. It well may be that the only way to gain control over identity theft will be the suggested DARPA reconfiguration of the Web and its security apparatus.
These, however, are short-term crises, which may soon become outmoded by the ubiquitous wireless communicat ions network that should be fully evolved by the middle to late years of the 2010s.
With no computers, and only signals in the air to handle all social and economic activity, expect new cybercrimes yet to be invented. Unless a values revolution (whether spiritual, religious, or humanistic in origin) occurs and humans/transhumans choose to refrain from stealing, killing, and defiling one another, you can bet creative malcontents will develop new methods to manipulate the system for their own ends.
In the quest for speed and efficiency on the Web, networks will grow in size and scope. For example, a network including all branches of a large bank grows when several banks merge and becomes larger still when all banks in a region join to reduce costs and speed service delivery. Then a national banking net emerges and is soon replaced by a multinational and finally a worldwide net. While the network becomes more powerful as it grows, it also becomes more vulnerable to attack. A shutdown of a regional net would create havoc, but the slack could be picked up by other nets. If the worldwide net is closed, however, true chaos would ensue, leaving banks and their customers at the mercy of blackmailers, extortionists, or terrorists. Thus, the larger the networks (e.g., energy, medical, education; regional, international, worldwide), the more critical security becomes.
On the other hand, there may be a greater threat evolving from the powerful technology available to thwart cybercrime and, indeed, all criminal activity. Authorities have long said, “If you have nothing to hide, you have nothing to fear” when talking about police state surveillance capabilities. This theory may well be tested by the evolving technology of the next few years: All activity could be seen and recorded, ready for retrieval and prosecution. Next comes the development of preventive strategies. Do we really want to live in a society where law is supreme, without recourse, and where mistakes are not allowed, where “the record” is proof positive, and where there is no place for plea bargaining, mediation, or arbitration? Have we evolved to this level of “perfection”?
TAMING THE CYBERCRIMINAL
The future path through cyberspace is filled with threats and opportunities, most of which cannot even be imagined today. With the equivalent of 5,000 years of technological progress expected between 2000 and 2025, it’s difficult to forecast the dilemmas that lie ahead, but thanks to the creativity and genius of William Gibson, Ray Kurzweil, and others like them, some predictions have been made and can be used as a basis for forecasting future cybercrime and crime fighting.
The Internet as we know it-computers, Web sites, e-mail, blogs, e- commerce, etc.-may be outdated as soon as the early years of the next decade (the “twenty-teens”). All communication will be handled by a seamless, wireless network of airborne signals moving between nanobots and individuals with transmitters implanted in them. At this point, cyberoffenses will become very personal, as an attack on the Web is a direct attack on the user-possibly even invading his brain and memory stored in neural networks.
As nanoscience advances to the point that bots in the atmosphere capture and record all spoken and physical activity, the choice for law enforcement-and society-will evolve: Do we tightly control all human interaction by holding individuals responsible for every deed and action (each of which is supported by permanently stored evidence) in an efficiently networked Web, or do we allow creativity and individualism to emerge by refusing to set boundaries and jurisdictions on the Internet, leaving it much as it is today- without management or enforcement?
Choosing a “total control” future might curtail cybercrime and make the Web a safe vehicle for communication, socializing, commerce, etc., but at a substantial cost to privacy, freedom of speech, and other civil liberties. Choosing a “nobody-incharge” future might allow a free flow of information and exchange of goods and services without government interference, but with a substantial threat to the economic and social lives of individuals and society itself posed by cyberoffenders.
By 2025, the whole concept of the Internet and cybercrime may be dumped into the dustbin of history. The greatest threat then might be the extreme difficulty of separating virtual (cyber) reality from physical reality. Already, psychologists warn that perception can be more important than truth: If cyberreality is more convincing than physical reality, the virtual world might become the “real” world. Welcome to The Matrix.
“COMPUTER AND INTERNET USE WILL BECOME INCREASINGLY SEAMLESS, AS HANDS-FREE, VOICE-ACTIVATED COMMUNICATIONS AND DATA ENTRY AND RETRIEVAL WILL BE COMMONPLACE.”
“COULD THERE BE A MORE FRIGHTENING CRIME THAN HAVING YOUR BRAINSTORED KNOWLEDGE ERASED OR SCRAMBLED, OR HEARING VOICES THREATENING TO DESTROY YOUR MEMORY UNLESS YOU PAY EXTRAVAGANT BLACKMAIL? WELCOME TO THE PROSPECTS OF MINDSTALKING.”
“THE GREATEST THREAT MIGHT BE THE EXTREME DIFFICULTY OF SEPARATING VIRTUAL (CYBER) REALITY FROM PHYSICAL REALITY.”
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About the Author
Gene Stephens, distinguished professor emeritus of the University of South Carolina, Columbia, South Carolina, is the criminal justice editor of THE FUTURIST. His last article, “Policing the Future: Law Enforcement’s New Challenges,” was published in March-April 2005. His address is 313 Lockner Court, Columbia, South Carolina 29212. E- mail firstname.lastname@example.org.