About half of all property crime in the developed world now takes place online. When so much of our lives, and almost all of our money, have been digitised, this is not surprising – but it has some surprising consequences.
For one thing, the decline in reported property crimes trumpeted by successive British governments between 2005 and 2015 turns out to have been an illusion. Because banks were not required to report fraud to the police after 2005, they often didn’t.
It would have made both banks and police look bad to have all that crime known and nothing is done about it. The cost of the resulting ignorance was paid by the rest of government, and by the public, too, deprived of accurate and reliable knowledge.
Since then, the total number of property crimes reported has risen from about 6m to 11m a year as the figures have taken computerised crime into account.
The indirect costs to society are very much higher than the hundreds of millions that individuals lose.
One example is the proliferation of plagiarism software online, which developed an entire industry in poor, English-speaking countries like Kenya, serving idle or ignorant students in England and North America.
The effort required by schools and universities to guard against such fraud has been considerable, and its cost entirely disproportionate to the gains made by the perpetrators.
There is worse, too: the fact that recorded crime figures continued to fall throughout Theresa May’s tenure as home secretary, all while she cut 20,000 police jobs, was an important fact in making her appear a competent candidate for prime minister in 2015.
A recent paper from Cambridge University has examined the changing landscape of crime online since 2012. The news is not all bad.
Although the general level continues to rise, some forms have diminished. Sometimes this is the result of deliberate effort: credit card fraud has grown in absolute terms, but it is now a smaller proportion of a much larger pie.
More often it is the result of developments in the law-abiding world that have made some older crimes unprofitable.
It is no longer worth anyone’s while to counterfeit Viagra now that it has come out of patent and is sold without prescription; the fraudulent copying of music has been almost eliminated by digital streaming services.
Even software is now largely sold on subscription and no longer pirated.
Some forms have grown immensely. Bitcoin and other digital currencies have no real application as a means of exchange except for things that may not be legally sold, like drugs, or to pay ransoms to criminals – both the WannaCry and NotPetya ransomware demanded payment in bitcoin from their victims.
The invention of this payment mechanism has led to a corresponding boost in the profitability and supply of these ransomware.
We are not helpless against this onslaught, but the police in Britain still act as if we were. Because much of cybercrime is international, it requires close and quick collaboration between national police forces, and even within the EU, this is not the case.
The British police are reluctant to investigate property crimes in the real world and still more so online. This reluctance is backed up by a lack of resources. But until it can be overcome, crime will continue to flourish online since there is no detectable law enforcement there.
It took 10 years for the British government to acknowledge that so much crime was taking place online. How many more years will it take before any government sets out to fight it?
This story originally appeared in The Guardian. Image courtesy of Pixabay.