Cybercrime in the Age of a Global Pandemic
The impact of Covid-19 on domestic security has been widely discussed by numerous experts in recent months. As one can imagine, the combination of global insecurity, anxiety over growing infection rates and stay-at-home orders can have huge consequences for the fight against crime. Criminals might take advantage of the people’s desire to avoid infections, i.e. by offering fake counter-measures or even undermining domestic stability. More broadly, it appears reasonable to assume that the sudden shift in people’s public and personal lives caused by the lockdowns has greatly affected the frequency of certain types of criminal activities.
Obviously, crimes such as theft are less likely to occur amidst closed shops, empty streets, and people staying at home, whereas the use of communication technology for illicit purposes has presumably increased. The more time people spend at home, the more they rely on technology to meet their obligations, including work requirements and personal duties such as shopping or paying the bills. This presents a window of opportunity for criminal actors with the know-how to take advantage of this trend. Others that do possess the know-how but have not been involved in criminal activities yet, might be increasingly vulnerable to committing cybercrimes, considering the likelihood of boredom and the few remaining opportunities to prove themselves. Young people that have already flirted with the world of cybercrime are particularly likely to walk down this path.
Against this backdrop, the CC-DRIVER project‘s effort to examine, detect and mitigate cybercriminality as well as the drivers of socially disruptive online behaviour, particularly among young people, appears to be more important than ever. However, as reasonable as the observations above may seem, they remain to be properly analysed. Undoubtedly, there is some anecdotal evidence of the nexus between the Covid-19 pandemic and cybercrime. For example, the Ministry of Economic Affairs, Innovation, Digitalisation and Energy of the State of North Rhine-Westphalia, Germany, froze its pandemic-related stimulus package for self-employed individuals and companies because criminals had set up so many fake websites to receive financial support that the entire program was at the danger of being severely undermined.
However, such incidents, although quite shocking, do not cast enough light on the overall scope of Covid-19-related cybercrime. Recent assessments of the EU, however, fully corroborate the observation that the Internet is deliberately used to engage in pandemic-related fraud, mainly by taking advantage of public fear. More specifically, cybercriminals were found to sell fake masks, disinfectant spray and even antidotes.
On the account of the President of the EU Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, the scope of such activities was immense. In late March, when the lockdown measures had just been in place for approximately two weeks (at least in most places), Europol could detect no less than 2,500 links, websites and social media accounts that were promoting and offering such fake products, 37 groups operating in the world of organised crime that were involved in the above-mentioned activities could be dismantled and 4.4 million units of illicit pharmaceuticals – an astonishingly high number – could be seized.
At the same time, the Council of Europe reported that further cybercrime activities even deliberately aimed at undermining domestic stability – either to cause chaos or extort ransom. More specifically, the Council of Europe noticed that “[m]isinformation or fake news are spread by trolls and fake media accounts to create panic, social instability and distrust in governments or in measures taken by their health authorities” as well as the use of “[r]ansomware shutting down medical, scientific or other health-related facilities where individuals are tested for Covid-19 or where vaccines are being developed in order to extort ransom”.
However, further research into the exact link between the pandemic and cybercrime is necessary. The question whether the volume of cybercrime as such, irrespective of criminal activities that are directly related to the pandemic as the above-mentioned ones, has greatly increased amidst stay-at-home orders is rather hard to answer. The issue is that we have witnessed growing numbers of cybercrime for numerous years. For example, cybercrime incidents went up by 15 percent in Germany last year. It is far from clear to what extent further increases are directly caused by the newfound circumstances or would have occurred (in other forms) anyway. Moreover, it remains to be analysed what agents and motivations are driving cybercrime in the age of Covid-19, including the role of young people and their desires and aspirations. As mentioned above, CC-DRIVER will fill this void by placing a special emphasis on the factors driving juvenile cyber delinquency (of young people that are between 16-19 years old), among other things by conducting an online survey of 8,000 participants in various European countries to investigate the reasons of online illegal behaviour and aspects of cyber risky behaviours.
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