Does Technology Breed Crime?

Anywhere that you have connectivity combined with the absence of a functioning judicial system; you will breed crime. It doesn’t matter what that connectivity is, or how you measure that connectivity – whether it is in paved roads, running water, electricity – each of these factors contributes to both the reach of commerce and the reach of criminals. The two cannot be divorced from each other. If you have a rapid expansion of transportation, without an equal expansion of police power, criminals will exploit that weakness. In the wild west, outlaws would rob trains as they crossed the nation, knowing that they’d be vulnerable and there was little chance of being caught (as it happens, the development of the telegraph put an end to train robberies.)

Let’s look at Russia. Back in the cold war era, there were technology export restrictions in place. With the fall of the Iron Curtain, those restrictions were relaxed. By the time we in the United States started going online en-masse in 1995, upgrading our computer systems to Pentium machines running Windows 95 – our old computer systems didn’t go into the garbage, they were sold into the huge technological vacuum of the former Soviet Union.

Who are the early adopters of technology? Kids of course! And Russia was no exception. Like a 16-year-old with a hot rod, the youths started souping up computers that we considered garbage. They got on to the internet using whatever they could, and once they connected to our information flows, they started teaching themselves programming. Because they were learning to program on outdated equipment, this forced them to become very, very good. There was no such thing as code bloat. Then you add 5 years to the calendar and what do you have? Little Ivan is no longer 15, he is 20 and has 5 years experience – and therein lies the rub – Ivan cannot go out and get a job in information technology, there is no economy to support his skill set. So, he goes about earning a living any way he can. I call it “N0 RUL3Z, JU5T WR1T3″. Ivan sets about writing spam software, creating Trojan horses, worms… this is where we see the emergence of the botnet.

Brazil wasn’t far behind. In 2004-2005 we saw an uptick in the botnet wars arms race with Russia being one-upped by Brazil with the Beagle/Bagle, Mydoom and Sasser botnet pissing contest.

There is a tide shift taking place. Putin has implemented a 12% flat tax which is bringing revenues flowing into the Russian economy for the first time in 15 years. They are reviving their legal system because they want to attract the Foreign Direct Investment dollars which will never come if they have no legal system which can enforce a legal contract. Along with the civil justice and FDI dollars, criminal justice must reign in corruption otherwise the FDI dollars will quickly disappear. So, Russia is growing out of the script kiddie phase and reemerging onto the world scene. Its good to have Mother Russia back (New & Improved, Now with 1337 H4x0rs!).

I could go on providing details of history and economics, but I will leave that for later. But I will pose this question for you to think about: What do you think the outcome of One Laptop Per Child will have on the future of cybercrime? If connectivity absent a legal system is the breeding ground for crime, what do you think will happen as the bottom billion in Africa gets online?

Computer security is all about dealing with the unintended consequences. Every computer and every system that was ever built was first done to share information, not secure it. Security only came after we got everything connected, then had the collective “awww crap!” moment.

I see another one of those moments coming up on the horizon. Do you? I’m interested in hearing your comments on what the future has in store for security.

  • Arik

    Hello Joel,

    I’m guessing here – do you refer to this?

    Also take a look at

    Point being, if the system is complex enough, some people will find ways to exploit it. Technology “breeds crime” by supplying the would-be criminal with complex systems, and the probability of an exploitable security hole increases with complexity.

    Look at the current state of the art – the bot networks. These are a parasite on the internet. They eat resources and profit from them. The people behind them are not doing it for fun, and they are not your Ivan. Ivan may be writing the code, but it’s Guy, the mobster, who’s paying Ivan to do it.

    The fact that these nets exist is due to the technological environment that created the millions of unprotected nodes and ignorant users who use them. This was impossible 15 years ago, due to computing power, network capacity, scale.

    Take Frank Abangale. The reason why he could forge checks and get away with it was because the technological advancement of bank checking systems allowing you to withdraw money from one bank with a check of another bank.

    So my opinion is that technology does not directly breeds crime. It just creates the complex environment necessary for the development of the criminals.

    – Arik

  • Joel Helgeson

    And I say that any connectivity creates crime, especially where such connectivity extends the reach of criminals beyond the reach of law enforcement. The gangsters of the 1920′s-1930′s in the United States took advantage of the motor vehicle and paved roads to expand their crime sprees.

    If we can operate on the premise that connectivity in the absence of a legal framework breeds crime, then we have a simple foundation by which we can understand, if not predict the future of insecurity.

    I see the OLPC project as being well intentioned, but what I do not see discussed is the unintended consequences of this project.

  • Arik


    I think we agree, the only difference is that you see connectivity itself as creating crime, I see connectivity as a property of a complex environment with the same results. Then, to show which is right, we need a complex environment that does not include connectivity, and see if it breeds crime.

    I’ll try to find one, admittedly difficult in today’s world.

    – Arik

  • Joel Helgeson

    “To show which is right, we need a complex environment that does not include connectivity, and see if it breeds crime.”
    I do not think that is the right question to ask. There isn’t a society that exists without some level of crime.

    My issue is not with connectivity per se, but that connectivity itself extends the reach of criminals beyond the perceived reach of the law. Connectivity itself is amoral, neither good nor evil. Connectivity provides a resource to be used for good or evil, and is often used for both.

    Any time criminals think they have the edge on the law, they will exploit it. They will work outside the law for as long as it benefits them. When the law catches up, the criminal either changes tactics, reforms their ways, or is stopped.

    Follow me on this one: South African “Blood Diamonds” were being sold on the diamond market, the proceeds used to fund civil wars. To counter this, the World Trade Organization implemented the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative (EITI) whereby countries would voluntarily report to their citizens the value and quantity of the natural resources extracted and exported abroad. The corrupt governments laughed and continued selling their goods(diamonds), however, the purchase of the commodities were openly reported. Any citizen with access to the information could see that n-billion dollars of diamonds were being sold, but only a fraction was going towards public projects. The exposure of the corruption to the light of day caused a sea change in policy.

    Nigeria exports billions in oil and copper, yet the citizens see little of that revenue. The citizens could track the billions in sales of natural resources using the internet. Due to public pressure, Nigerian President Umaru Yar’Adua publicly announced that his country would adhere to the EITI protocol. He immediately started getting death threats from the corrupt Nigerians profiting from the lax export rules. Nevertheless, the reporting of revenue brought revenue to government coffers, which helped to legitimize a corrupt legal system in order to attract the foreign direct investment dollars to help extract the natural resources. The result: 419 scams are on the decline… from Nigeria. They have now moved to Benin, its neighbor to the west.

    In case after case, connectivity breeds crime yet it also allows access to information for legitimate use. Everyone wants to benefit from the new connectivity; both bad guys and good guys. The tortoise versus the hare; the good guys eventually triumph on the long game.

    The whole purpose of crime is to get easy money. If technology provides a means to access easy money, so be it.

    - Joel

  • al

    Online connectivity has has kick started an electronic form of evolution, however i am un aware of what will become the superior race in terms of connectivity and other relevent elements.