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Last Updated: Friday, 10 February 2006, 17:13 GMT
Europe tackles cyber-criminals
David Reid
By David Reid
Click reporter

As cyber-criminals make use of countries which take a more relaxed approach to online offences, the Cyber-crime Convention in Madrid is working out how to get a consensus on global laws to police this.

Magnifying glass over a computer keyboard
It is difficult to catch cyber-criminals without international co-operation
Cyber-crime has become a growth industry. More and more criminals are waking up to the fact that, even with cyber snoops on their tails, the net is a lot less risky as a money spinner than armed robbery.

The profile of the cyber-criminal has changed over the years. Disgruntled former programmers and thrill-seeking teenagers used to be the main cause of online chaos.

But now the internet has become the turf and territory of gangs involved in organised crime.

In Madrid, the Council of Europe is thrashing out how to take these criminals on with its Cyber-crime Convention.

Many of those involved in wrongdoing on the web are holed up in or covering their tracks through countries that lack the laws, procedures or even adequately trained police to deal with this sort of offence.

'Snowball effect'

The Convention aims to establish an international standard leaving no loopholes, havens or hideouts.

It is encouraging that the United States is ratifying the convention for the moment
Guy De Vel, Council of Europe
That is, if everyone signs up.

This is a problem, says Guy De Vel, director general of legal affairs at the Council of Europe. "But of course you have to start somewhere", he says.

"Therefore it is encouraging that the United States is ratifying the convention for the moment. This will give an impetus to other countries, so we are starting and counting on the snow-ball effect."

It is just as well the US has ratified. It is not only a target, but also one of the main sources of spam and viral attacks.

The Convention aims to level the field, pushing globally for laws and procedures to back them up.

Detective work

It also requires the setting up of cyber-crime units like Spain's, where digital detectives have to be able to monitor the web and investigate crimes around the clock.

Handcuffs
Some fear new laws could hinder, rather than protect, our freedom
"What creates most alarm and what we hear most about is child pornography", says Juan Salom Clotet, from the computer crimes unit at Guardia Civil.

"That's not to say there is more child pornography than anything else, but when someone stumbles across such images, or finds a website or receives an e-mail, they don't hesitate to get in contact with the police."

Investigators use software such as Microsoft's Child Exploitation Tracking System to sift through evidence and possibly link it to known previous offenders.

But not all the answers are hi-tech.

Take the fight against those who try to trick you into giving over your financial details. A grouping of police, service providers and banks, called Phishnet, is bent on making phishing a hazardous sport.

Jean-Christophe Le Toquin, an attorney for Microsoft, says: "Once people don't understand the difference between a legitimate website and a fake website then they may give their data to a fake website and never come again.

"Or they may wish not to give their details to any site, be it legal or illegal, and then trust in e-commerce is severely damaged."

Compromises

It is important that we become streetwise and develop a similar common sense online to the instinct that makes us think twice about going through dodgy neighbourhoods in the physical world.

At the same time some are wary of too much government interference and worry that the Convention could compromise privacy and our right to roam.

The internet, they say, is no place for stop signs.

Howard W Cox, trial attorney of the US Department of Justice, says: "What we strive to do in the United States is to assure our citizens that our checks and balances are in place and that they will be in no way compromised by the fact that we have signed the convention.

"Obviously in designing laws in other jurisdictions we would want similar checks and balances to be put in place, again to make sure that individual rights as defined by each country are fully and properly protected.

"We can't have this convention used, then, to engage in that sort of oppression."

Madrid is a lovely city, but the traffic is appalling and for all their efforts, the police do not always help. Some fear the same for the internet.

It was founded on the ideals, perhaps even myths, of freedom and transparency, and if the authorities are not careful we could end up losing the very liberty they are trying to protect.



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