What cybercriminals can teach the lawful about ethical no-man's land
"Cybercrime is out of control."
So says Caleb Barlow, Vice President at IBM Security. And if you're already worried about credit card fraud and Russian hacking, you may not want to read any further.
On the other hand, there's a lesson for all of us from the world of virtual villainy.
Most of us have come to accept internet espionage, phishing emails, and scam artists as part of life, the virtual equivalent of political kickbacks, muggings, and drive-by shootings. We don't like them; but the real world is not a perfect world, so we learn to take the bad with the good.
But what's going on in the internet underworld is a staggeringly different reality. According to the United Nations, 80% of cybercrime is perpetrated by highly organized and super-sophisticated syndicates, representing an economy of 445 billion dollars in illegal profits, larger than the GDP of Ireland, Finland, or Portugal.
In a recent Ted Talk, Caleb Barlow offered a terrifying and surreal account of criminal organizations operating like professional, legitimate businesses, with English-speaking help desks and fake banking websites. They operate anonymously on the Dark Web, which most of us relate to as something from a Kiefer Sutherland thriller.
But it's real. So real, in fact, that if you stumbled across a dark website you'd think you were shopping on Amazon or checking reviews on Angie's List. These covert sites offer bronze, silver, and platinum hacking packages, competitive pricing, references and reviews, starred ratings, and money-back guarantees that you'll be satisfied with the cyber attack you buy.
"Of course," says Mr. Barlow, "if you're going to buy an attack, you're going to buy from a reputable criminal with good ratings, right?"
THE SCAM REMAINS THE SAME
I'm reminded of a perplexing phenomenon from my past life as a high-school teacher. Occasionally, I had students who put more effort into cheating than they would have needed to actually learn the material. Even after they got caught once, they would still try again the next time.
It may be that some people are hardwired to be dishonest. But there is another, more troubling explanation.
What's really bizarre is how similar the criminals themselves are to "normal" entrepreneurs. They work regular hours, Monday through Friday. They appeal unfavorable reviews and politely argue against unflattering comments. They employ the legalistic language of licensing agreements, even as they market fake passports and I.D. cards.
In other words, they are doing everything they would be doing if they were running legitimate operations. And, presumably, they have sufficient business acumen that they could be making a nice living without breaking the law.
So why don't they go legal? For the same reason, perhaps, that men married to attractive women cheat on their wives and multi-millionaires engage in profiteering.
TWO SUGARS, PLEASE
The Talmud observes that stolen waters taste sweeter.
As human beings, we are perpetually at war with ourselves. From one part of our psyche, we envision ourselves as good people, upstanding citizens, and virtuous members of society who contribute to the common good and the general welfare.
But from a murkier part of our nature we identify with the lone wolf, the dissident, the renegade who rejects social norms and strikes out on his own, taking whatever he desires and flouting the conventions of the wider community. The self-validation that comes from crossing lines, the excitement of defying boundaries, the endorphin rush that comes from risking the consequences of malfeasance – these are the psychological and physiological rewards of crime.
Once upon a time, it was understood that most crimes were born of desperation. Most exiles to Botany Bay were driven to thievery by the need to feed their children. Less often, crimes were motivated by opportunity: a purse left unattended or an account unmonitored brought out the worst in otherwise honest individuals, who might even regret their transgressions once the heat of the moment had abated.
The cold, businesslike criminality of an Al Capone or a John Dillinger was a rare, if grisly, curiosity.
THE FALLACY OF FANTASY
But there's something more calculating about modern Dark Web activity. It almost seems as if cybercrime ought to have its own kiosk on college campuses for Career Day, offering a reasonable alternative to accountancy or nursing. One has to wonder if the sole impetus is easy money, or if making an honest living doing an honest day's work just seems too darn boring, even if the practical day-to-day routine of running a major larceny operation ends up being much the same.
If so, we might ask ourselves if some part of us doesn't envy these cybercriminals, not for their lack of scruples but for their lives of non-conformism and their flirtation with disaster.
Television and movies may be playing a supporting role. The romantic adventurism depicted by our entertainment industry makes normal life seem bland and empty by comparison. We aren't chasing down bad guys, fighting for freedom, or grappling with supervillains over the fate of the universe; so where is the value in our lives?
Integrity, family, and community --- it all sounds pretty dull. But what if we resist the temptation to sell our souls for easy profit --- or, even worse, for the dopamine buzz we might get from the criminal exploitation of others? What if we recognize the more subtle rewards of consistent morality and ethics, of building up society rather than undermining its foundations? Then we become the true heroes, nourishing our hearts and minds on a diet of virtue and self-respect, making a positive difference in the world, and preserving the values that make us fully human.