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How Engineering Progress Precipitates Crime

How Engineering Progress Precipitates Crime

We all know there are unintended consequences that come with technological progress. Both unanticipated and undesired, some are so significant that they have a major impact on our society.

I was just in the D.C. area visiting a secured facility to learn more about one of the most troubling consequences of modern technology: the widespread use of computers, cellphones, and commercial electronics to perpetuate crimes. The range of these crimes is breathtaking, from the expected white-collar crimes of fraud, industrial espionage, and intellectual property theft, to terrorism, extortion, exploitation of children, and homicide.

With the widespread deployment of every imaginable form of technology throughout business, national infrastructures, and social networking, there has been an explosion of crime by individuals, groups, and nation states. What is particularly concerning is it appears many of these criminals might not perpetuate these crimes if it were not for the apparent ease, anonymity, and emotional distance that comes from the online world.

The old bumper sticker "guns don't kill people, people kill people," while dubious in traditional crimes, may actually have some relevance to the online criminal community. In this new world, would-be bank robbers don't need to risk approaching a bank teller with a gun and a note. With a little expertise these individuals can use the same beneficial technology they use to write memos for work, send photos to grandparents, and reserve hotel rooms for family vacations, to quietly access someone's account and transfer the funds to undetected foreign accounts. Within some amoral circles, this is nothing more than a victimless crime with insurance picking up the tab.

The FBI takes these technologically enabled crimes seriously, having created a national network of Regional Computer Forensics Labs. At these labs, the normal forensic science of fingerprints, blood splatter patterns, and DNA give way to IP addresses, destroyed hard drives, and encrypted passwords. The booming field of digital forensics employs computer and electrical engineers and computer scientists just as the traditional crime labs employ biologists and chemists.

One of main challenges the FBI faces is the drive to innovate by commercial enterprises. This competitive necessity produces such rapid changes in the technological infrastructure that would-be criminals can exploit countless vulnerabilities before they are even known to the manufacturer or designer.

These cases don't always make it into the public sphere (due to obvious copycat fears), but one crime, which appears on the official FBI Website, shows just how sophisticated this underworld has become. It all starts with three young Eastern Europeans and an unnamed criminal who goes by the name "Hacker 3." As the FBI Website reports, "working together, the four hackers cooked up perhaps the most sophisticated and organized computer fraud attack ever conducted."

It began when a 28-year-old man from Moldova discovered a weakness in the computer network of a major credit card processing company. He passed that information to a hacker living in Estonia, who monitored the network before sharing this information with a Russian hacker.

"The Russian reverse engineered the PIN codes from the encrypted system, and raised the limits on the amount of money that could be withdrawn from the prepaid payroll debit cards," according to the FBI. A global network of hacker thieves then used counterfeit cards to nearly simultaneously hit more than 2,100 money machines in more than 280 cities on three continents for $9 million. Months of difficult digital forensics work by law enforcement and engineers ultimately led to the criminals.

So we learn again that engineers, particularly those whose work is propelling our digital economy, now have one more thing to worry about: our unintended role in crime.

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