To catch a cybercriminal
By A.J. Surin
WHAT is cybercrime? The Oxford Reference Online defines cybercrime as crime committed over the Internet (www.oxfordreference.com/views/ENTRY.html?ssid=175131518&entry=t49.000925&srn=1&cate gory= - FIRSTHIT). Some people call cybercrime “computer crime.” The Encyclopaedia Britannica defines computer crime as any crime that is committed by means of special knowledge or expert use of computer technology.
Computer crime could reasonably include a wide variety of criminal offences, activities, or issues. The scope of the definition becomes even larger with the frequent companion or substitute term “computer-related crime.” Some writers are also of the opinion that “computer crime” refers to computer-related activities which are either criminal in the legal sense of the word or just antisocial behaviour where there is no breach of the law (Lee, M.K.O. (1995) Legal control of computer crime in Hong Kong, Information Management & Computer Security 3(2) 13-19 – http://mustafa.emeraldlibrary.com/vl=4775179/cl=50/nw=1/rpsv/~1177/v3n2/s3/p13).
The word “hacker” should also be defined here, as it will be used extensively in this article – hackers are basically people who break into and tamper with computer information systems. The word “cracker” carries a similar meaning, and “cracking” means to decipher a code, password or encrypted message.
What is concerning is that organised crime is escalating on the Internet, according to a 2002 statement by the head of Britain's National High-tech Crime Unit, Lee Hynds (www.ananova.com/news/story/sm_724492.html?menu). According to him the Internet provides organised crime groups with “a relatively low risk theatre of operations.”
As the topic of cybercrime is so wide, what I would like to do is focus on Malaysia’s Computer Crimes Act 1997, local law enforcement and practical tips on how to prevent cybercrime.
Computer crime laws in other countries, the enforcement and multilateral efforts to harmonise laws against cybercrime will be discussed in next month’s column.
Are there laws in Malaysia to prosecute cybercriminals? What are the penalties for cybercriminals in Malaysia?
The need for laws against cybercriminals is obvious. A school dropout from the Philippines who wrote the ILOVEYOU virus was not prosecuted by the Philippine Government because at that time, the country did not have laws relating to virus creators. Ironically, the then President Estrada stated that perhaps the Philippines should leverage on the fact that they have such good virus writers to attract global technology companies to base themselves in the Philippines, considering the capable talent available in the country.
Viruses and worms are getting more insidious nowadays – take for instance, the Swen worm, which cleverly disguises itself as an e-mail message from Microsoft with a patch attached.
Besides hacking and cracking, technology and the Internet can be used for a myriad of other illegal purposes: drug dealers use encrypted fax machines to send orders for narcotics to their suppliers in a neighbouring country.
Gangsters can use computers for extortion. Prostitution rings maintain their customer payments and client lists through computer software applications. Burglary rings track break-ins and then inventory their winnings from each job. Gangsters who want to murder a person in hospital can crack the hospital’s computers to alter the dosage of medication (www.scmagazine.com/scmagazine/2000_04/cover/cover.html).
Cybercriminals can range from teenagers who vandalise websites to terrorists who target a nation. However, we will leave the discussion on cyberterrorism to another installation of this column.
Laws specifically catered for criminal activity through, over and using the Internet is essential for a nation state to have, especially in this globalised, Internet age. Take the example of the ILOVEYOU virus again, which spread to at least 45 million computers worldwide causing billions of dollars in damage (www.ananova.com/news/story/sm_51942.html).
The Computer Crimes Act 1997 provides for offences against cybercrime. Now, it is not the case that the other Acts of Parliament do not provide for criminal offences (like the Communications and Multimedia Act 1998, the Digital Signature Act 1997 and the Optical Discs Act 2000), it is just that in terms of cybercrime itself, the Act of Parliament which is the most relevant is the Computer Crimes Act. This Act is divided into three parts, that is the “Preliminary,” “Offences” and “Ancillary And General Provisions” parts and is 12 sections long. It came into force on June 1, 2000.
Section 3 provides for the offence of unauthorised access to computer material. A person shall be guilty of an offence if three elements exist, that is:
- He causes a computer to perform any function with intent to secure access to any program or data held in any computer^;
- The access he intends to secure is unauthorised^; and
- He knows at the time that he accesses the computer without authorisation.
The section then states that the intent a person has to have to commit the offence need not be directed at any particular program or data, a program or data of any particular kind or a program or data held in any particular computer. One meaning of this part may be that it does not matter whether or not a hacker knows what the consequences of his act will be, which program or data he or she will access or even which computer he or she will access, just as long as he knows that his access is unauthorised. The penalty for this offence is a maximum fine of RM50,000, a maximum prison sentence of five years or both the fine and imprisonment.
Section 4 provides for the offence of unauthorised access with intent to commit or facilitate the commission of a further offence. A person shall be guilty of an offence under this section if two elements exist, that is:
- He or she accesses unauthorised computer material without access^; and
- He or she accesses this computer material with the intent of: committing an offence involving fraud or dishonesty or which causes injury as defined in the Penal Code^; or facilitating the commission of such an offence whether by himself or by any other person.
A person guilty of an offence under this section shall on conviction be liable to a maximum fine of RM150,000 or a maximum prison term of 10 years or both the fine and imprisonment. As you can see, the legislature has provided for a higher fine and a higher prison term for this offence, as the crime here is more serious than in Section 3, as the commission of a further offence of fraud, dishonesty or injury is envisaged.
Section 5 provides for the offence of unauthorised modification of the contents of any computer. A person shall be guilty of the offence if he does any act which he knows will cause unauthorised modification of the contents of any computer. Section 5 also states that it is immaterial that the act in question is not directed at any particular program or data a program or data of any kind or a program or data held in any particular computer.
This most probably means that it does not matter whether or not the hacker knows which program or data, or even which computer will be affected by his actions, just as long as he knows his actions will cause unauthorised modifications. For the purposes of Section 5, it is immaterial whether an unauthorised modification is, or is intended to be, permanent or merely temporary. The penalty is a maximum fine of RM100,000 or a maximum prison sentence of seven years or both the fine and prison sentence. However, if the modification was done to cause injury, then the maximum fine is RM150,000 and the maximum prison term is 10 years.
Section 6 is the offence of wrongful communication. A person shall be guilty of an offence if he communicates directly or indirectly a number, code, password or other means of access to a computer to any person other than a person to whom he is duly authorised to communicate it to. The penalty for the offence is a maximum fine of RM25,000 or a maximum prison sentence of three years or both.
Section 7 provides for a criminal offence if a person assists in the commissioning of any of the offences above, attempts to commit any of the offences above or was preparing to commit any of the offences above.
Section 11 provides for the criminal offence if:
- A person assaults, obstructs, hinders or delays a police officer when the latter is attempting to enter any premises for the purposes searching, seizing or arresting as provided for under the Act^; or
- A person fails to comply with any lawful demands of a police officer acting in the execution of his duty under the Act.
A person found guilty under Section 11 faces a maximum fine of RM25,000 or a maximum prison term of three years or to both the fine and prison term.
Section 9 of the Computer Crimes Act states that the provisions of the Act shall have effect outside as well as within Malaysia and where the commission of the offence was performed outside Malaysia, he may be dealt with in respect of such offence as if it was committed at a place within Malaysia. Section 9 goes on to state that the Act shall apply if, for the offence in question, the computer, program or data was in Malaysia or capable of being connected to or sent to or used by or with a computer in Malaysia at the material time.
This practically means that the Computer Crimes Act has extra-territorial jurisdiction – the law can be enforced against an alleged offender even if he is in another country.
One more interesting thing about the Act is that Section 10 gives the power to any police officer to arrest without warrant any person whom he (the police officer) reasonably believes to have committed or is committing an offence under the Act.
Thus, the police have sweeping powers of arrest with regards to cybercrime and reflects the legislature’s consideration that it viewed the offences in the Act as pretty serious.
Practical examples of cybercrime
Some people may argue that there is a difference between hackers who break into a website to deface its homepage and cyberterrorists who go to these same websites with the purpose of causing harm to people and damage to databases and information systems (see for instance Lee, M.K.O. (1995) above). However, if you look at Section 5 of the Act carefully, Malaysian law does not make a distinction between a harmless hacker who defaces a webpage and a cyberterrorist who desires to cause injury – both will be guilty of offences under the Act, and both will be punishable, although by different sections of the Act.
Practical examples of cybercrimes include but are not limited to:
Cyberstalking. The goal of a cyberstalker is control. Stalking and harassment over cyberspace is more easily practised than in real life. There are many cases where cyberstalking crosses over to physical stalking.
Some examples of computer harassment are:
- Live chat obscenities and harassment^;
- Unsolicited and threatening e-mail^;
- Hostile postings about someone^;
- Spreading vicious rumours about someone^;
- Leaving abusive messages on a website’s guest books.
Cases where the crime can occur even if there was no computer – however, the use of technology makes the commission of the crime faster and permits the processing of larger amounts of information. Examples would be credit card fraud, drug trafficking, criminal breach of trust, forgery, cheating, illegal betting or gambling, forgery of valuable documents (money, cheques, passports and identification cards) and money laundering. In the past, the Malaysian Police has investigated rumour mongering and defamation on the Internet.
Malicious codes like worms, viruses and Trojan horses. These exploit security vulnerabilities of a system and they tend to alter or destroy data. The damage they cost is worth millions of Ringgit to companies as well as government agencies. Worms are different from viruses because they are able to spread themselves with no user interaction. A virus can attack systems in many ways: by erasing files, corrupting databases and destroying hard disk drives.
Hacking. Hacked systems can be used for information gathering, information alteration, and sabotage. Vulnerabilities exist in almost every network. Hackers sometime crack into systems to brag about their abilities to penetrate into systems, but others do it for illegal gain or other malicious purposes. Today, hacking is simpler than ever – hackers can now go to websites and download protocols, programs and scripts to use against their victims.
Cyberterrorism. This is the premeditated, politically motivated attack against information, computer systems, computer programs, and data which result in violence against noncombatant targets. We shall discuss cyberterrorism as a separate topic as this is an area of special concern and because certain countries have legislated on the topic.
Industrial espionage. This is where corporations spy on other companies and with network systems, this can be an easy task. Companies can retrieve sensitive information rarely leaving behind any evidence. Cyberespionage can also be applied to nations that spy on other countries' sensitive information.
Spoofing of IP addresses. This is where a false IP address is used to impersonate an authorised user.
The reproduction and distribution of copyright protected material and software piracy.
Cyberattacks on financial systems. This includes electronic banking and payment systems.
Cybervandalism. The defacing of webpages.
Pyramid schemes on the Internet.
E-mail abuse. This includees malicious or false e-mail.
Denial of service attacks.
Who are the local enforcers – what type of enforcement do we have in Malaysia?
Cyberlaw enforcers face several challenges:
Firstly, there is the identification of the criminal – Internet investigations are equipment- and labour-intensive. It is not that easy to identify cybercriminals.
This is because they operate in a virtual world and do not leave physical clues and paper trails behind, like the more traditional criminals do. Although they do leave their digital fingerprints now and then, enforcers need to move quickly before evidence fades away. Furthermore, with encryption, route relay and other types of technology and processes, they can make themselves almost undetectable by cyberenforcers.
Secondly, if the cybercriminal was in another country and he perpetrated his crimes against information systems here in Malaysia, how do you prosecute and ultimately impose the sentence against him?
This is where the harmonisation of a framework of cyberlaw globally will undoubtedly help (this was discussed in the Cyberlaws column in In.Tech, April 22. It is also the objective in respect to cyberlaw in the second phase of the MSC's development from 2003 to 2010), as the Internet is borderless and does not have regard to the laws of sovereign nations.
Besides legal differences, there are practical differences in terms of enforcement and co-ordination efforts between nations.
There may not be enough trained personnel or sufficient equipment to detect and to bring cybercriminals to book.
Finally, technology always evolves and the enforcers must keep up with changes.
Even in the United States as recently as 2000, it was noted that American law enforcement agencies, including the Justice Department, lacked the staff to investigate and prosecute cybercrimes like digital break-ins, data destruction and viruses. As a result of this, cybercriminals were breaking into or paralysing US-based websites with little fear of retribution, costing the private sector hundreds of millions of dollars.
Even Interpol, the organisation set up to track fugitives and investigate international crime and of which Malaysia is a member of, considered letting a Silicon Valley computer security company, AtomicTangerine, help it to protect businesses from hackers. This is after it acknowledged that international law enforcers were unable to combat computer crime effectively and also after acknowledging that governments found it difficult to coordinate cross-border efforts to combat this new phenomenon. Its secretary general at the time, Raymond Kendall stated that “... there's a limit to how you can transform police officers or detectives into technicians” (http://lists.insecure.org/lists/isn/2000/Jul/0056.html).
In Malaysia, the Malaysian Police formed the Technology Crime Investigation Branch (TCIB) in October 1998. It is under the Commercial Crime Investigation Division. The officers in the TCIB are specially trained in cybercriminal investigation methods. The TCIB also lends its assistance to overseas enforcement agencies in investigating online gambling, hacking and illegal distribution of pirated software.
Here are a couple of tips on how to prevent cybercrime:
- Install hardware and software that will recognise hacker attacks, data spying and data altering, like firewalls, encryption (for e-mail, the encryption program called Pretty Good Privacy can be used), virus detection and smartcards. An Intrusion Detection System can protect your information systems in the event of the failure of the firewall and from internal attacks. An Incident Handling System will be able to identify hacker attacks as they happen. Full backups are important so that evidence like damaged or altered files, files left by the intruder, the relevant IP address and login times can be collected. A police report should then be made.
- Assess your information systems to identify weaknesses.
- Ensure that computers that run critical infrastructure are not physically connected to any other computer that is possibly connected to the Internet.
- Maintain clear and consistent security policies and procedures.
- Use alphanumeric passwords (i.e. passwords with letters and numbers in them). Login passwords should be changed frequently.
- Employees have to be trained to understand security risks – this practically means that they must know that they should never give out PINs, passwords and calling card numbers of the company without proper third party verification.
Notorious hacker, Kevin Mitnick, who was the most wanted hacker at one time in the United States, told of how he accessed the information systems of the US’ Department of Motor Vehicles by simply calling up an officer, disguising himself as an officer from another government agency and obtaining the appropriate username and passwords from her.
- Correct identified problems – although this may seem straightforward and logical, I have seen many cases where security of certain information systems were compromised because problems were not fixed.
- Report attacks to the National ICT Security and Emergency Response Centre (Niser) so that any pattern of cybercrime in Malaysia can be detected and large-scale attacks prevented.
- There must exist incident response capabilities so that there is appropriate action taken against impending attacks.
- When an employee resigns or is terminated, employers must always ensure that the former does not have access to their computers anymore. The 1997 UN Manual on the Prevention and Control of Computer-Related Crime noted that 90% of economic crimes such as theft of information and fraud were committed by the relevant company’s employees. Even the Malaysian Police’s Technology Crime Investigation Branch is of the opinion that “more often than not, unauthorised access, hacking or e-mail abuse cases involve disgruntled employees taking advantage of ineffective security policies.”
- Maintain backups of all important data.
- When external persons service your system, save confidential information on other media before the service. Observe them during the service. Never let external people take computers or servers with confidential information from your site.
In a speech in Kuala Lumpur in February 2000, Deputy Prime Minister Datuk Seri Abdullah Ahmad Badawi stated that:
“The development of the Multimedia Super Corridor and the creation of a pioneer legal and regulatory framework encompassing, amongst other things, the Communications and Multimedia Act, the Computer Crimes Act and the Digital Signatures Act is indicative of the Government's commitment towards the creation of a knowledge-based economy.” (The Harvard Business School Alumni Club luncheon talk on Managing Malaysia in the New Global Economy.)
Thus, the Computer Crimes Act must be seen not only as a law which regulates the behaviour of people who use and do business over the Internet, but it also must be seen as the Government’s efforts to put in place soft infrastructure to nurture the MSC and the knowledge-based economy so that Malaysia can achieve Vision 2020.
At the same time, the Government should be aware that technological innovation and the deviousness of human minds would mean that the law as well as enforcement must not only keep up with cybercriminals, but it must ensure that their officers are one step ahead of cybercriminals, ready to catch them if the cybercriminals perform their dirty deeds.
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