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Presidential 'oops'

By Terry Joseph
October 03, 2003

President George Maxwell Richards might wish to rethink a tiny section of his address to Monday's opening of Parliament, actually just 14 words of the thousands delivered, two less than bought George W Bush trouble last July in a similar setting, as he rendered The State of the Union speech.

Examining possible solutions to current nationwide anxiety about runaway crime, President Richards said: "Is it in the passing of new laws in the Parliament? I think not." To his credit he later suggested law enforcement agencies should adopt a zero-tolerance strategy.

But perhaps because the frequency of kidnapping, robbery with violence and general banditry is so overwhelming, The Head of State focused on felony, overlooking the creeping horror of cyber-fraud and online terrorism.

Last week Republic Bank fired two employees after investigating reports of $3 million in fraudulent transactions. Last year, the Unit Trust Corporation was swindled out of $5 million, Telecommunications Services of T&T lost $4.5 million through the same route and just managed to stop a further $20 million from unlawfully going through the wires.

Last month, 35,000 mobile phone users were simultaneously thrown into a state of panic, after receiving text messages generated via the Internet by a single prankster, who threatened to kidnap their daughters.

On Monday, while President Richards was making his statement on the issue, a senior official of Scotiabank told members of the Princes Town business community that employees at financial institutions were probably feeding information to kidnappers about the state of their victims' finances.

Recently released kidnap victim Saran "Billy" Kissoondan, who was at the meeting, testified that his abductors were able to tell him how much money he had in his bank account. We all remember that the spate of kidnappings began in a particular area and several victims were customers at a single bank.

It should have come to President Richards' attention that we no longer use heavy ledgers or dip quills in ink to record and transact financial deals.

Now, with every activity computerised, it has become equally easy for employees to access accounts for good or sinister purpose. Although significantly more difficult, those with superior skills can and do move money unlawfully through the wires.

Clearly, there is an urgent need for passing of new laws in the very chamber where President Richards gave his address and indeed, the passage of such legislation should be sooner rather than later.

Existing laws have not even agreed upon a definition of computer crime, far more devised a way of dealing with it. Police appear stumped by the recent proliferation of white-collar lawbreaking, seemingly ill-equipped to crack sophisticated systems utilised by cyber-crooks and certainly working without back-up from lawmakers.

The extent to which these crimes are being perpetrated will perhaps never be accurately assessed, since organisations hit by the new crooks weigh the value of reporting these crimes against disincentives, which include fear of negative publicity and consequent decrease in stockholder confidence.

It may be that these elements conspire to reduce public and presidential appreciation of the degree to which cyber-savvy has replaced snatch-and-grab methods but, as the examples listed above demonstrate, crime is not always about physical confrontation. The sums involved in computer data manipulation far outstrip the combined take from banditry and kidnapping.

There is every indication computers will be the single largest generator of crime in the future. Already, increasingly sophisticated design of computer viruses, penetration of communications systems and credit card system fraud are with us and no doubt, industrial espionage will soon follow.

Traditional scams like the old faithful pyramid scheme, the Nigerian chain-letter and other "investment" swindles have now all found safe-haven on the Internet, disguising the same classic blueprints in high-tech cloaks and offering new opportunities from increasing popularity of electronic commerce and digital cash transactions.

Long ago, a disgruntled employee might be bold enough to sprinkle cow-itch on the boss' chair. Today, his reprisal may wreak havoc on mankind at large.

Socially maladjusted teenagers intent on mischief no longer play pranks or set booby-traps for meddlesome adults but target millions at a time through their computers.

Once considered 20th Century snake-oil from silicon valley and a cure-all for slow-learners, computers have quickly become the pernicious terrorism device, equally conducive to fraud and niche pornography; with much of this intelligence reposed in the hands of sometimes irresponsible youth.

President Richards should therefore seek to update his appreciation of the tools necessary to combat contemporary crime and at first opportunity, correct Monday's blooper.

Notwithstanding all our other crime concerns, we also live in an age where "A for Apple" refers to a computer brand rather than the opening line of that tune by which my age-group learnt the alphabet. In similar vein, "B" is for breaking into files, "C" is for con; and the rest of the song will likely be stolen via the Internet.

If we are to take seriously every utterance by our president, he must reconsider that statement since, out of the mouse of babes comes a different perspective and, it is my guess that once they come of age, quintessential computer crime will not be far behind.

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