“Underground economy”: Be careful about theft and sale of your personal information

September 29, 2013

A lack of law enforcement with adequate knowledge about electronic criminals and the courts’ unpreparedness to try and prosecute perpetrators has made African countries a fertile ground for cyber crime. The rampant theft and sale of personal information taken from the Internet and mobile devices has prompted calls for tougher laws. One cannot go for a week without at least three to five countries reporting how the police have detained some online fraudsters. In most African countries, criminal code procedures sets out what is considered legal evidence as testimonies from legal experts and defendants, hand written letters, witness and material exhibits and apart from a few selected countries procedures do not mention electronic evidence. Although African countries are establishing cyber crime divisions within police to tackle the menace, it would be ineffectual and futile mission for police to try the cyber crooks unless electronic-crime laws are passed and prosecutors and judges trained in gathering and interpreting evidence against cyber criminals. Surprisingly, presently there are less than five law firms who specialize in electronic crime in whole of Africa who meet International standards. The rest are wannabe cyber crime lawyers who have no basis knowhow of the advanced pillars of cyber crime.

Last Saturday shocking attack on Nairobi’s upmarket Westgate shopping mall has raised concerns how terror groups in East Africa and other parts of Africa are raising money to conduct their businesses. Research has shown that there have been many indications that terrorists are very resourceful in funding their activities through the use of technology. In Yemen, Pakistan, Syria and Afghanistan, security experts have long warned that hacking for money is the most common method of obtaining funds for terrorist financing. In fact, police investigations revealed 1998 twin bombing of Dar Es Salaam and Nairobi were allegedly funded at least in part by online fraud that was still alien to many back then. With that in mind, it is hardly surprising to see financial crime turning to life threatening offense such as terrorist attack. A recent report on the global money laundering and terrorist financing threat by the Financial Action Task Force on Money Laundering suggested that in African countries jurisdictions there seems to be an increase in Internet based fraud and other uses of Internet technologies in fraudulent activities.
The survey also revealed that in West African countries fraud, trafficking in narcotics and cigarettes are common crimes while in horn of Africa and East African region smuggling of weapons and human beings is rampant and are the most common sources of terrorist financing.

Other African countries should follow in the footsteps of Uganda Parliamentarians who passed laws aimed at alleviating online crime under cyber crime law 2013 on electronic information and transactions. The transactions law makes digital evidence admissible in Uganda court. Before the new law, Uganda police had a hard time collecting evidence that could stand a court of law. In South Africa, there were reports last year on how the country police was forced to recruit some of the cyber crime perpetrators as their informers to help curb cyber crime. There is need for police to use the existing criminal code to probe electronic crime before their lawmakers enact new laws that would make electronic evidence part of the criminal procedures and use laws on intellectual property rights, broadcasting and money laundering among others depending on the crime committed. Stakeholders and victims of cyber crime are eager for the new specialized laws to be passed. Cyber operatives have every reason to work with other departments that handles online crime like financial institutions, anti narcotics units within police among others.

Global Economic Crime Survey last year revealed that cybercrime is one of the top three types of reported economic crime. The end results from this offenses are immense that is not limited to theft of personal data, financial loss and reputation damage and loss of individual identifiable information that is then sold to cyber criminals for their use in their underworld dealings. Social media sites have provide loopholes exploited by cyber criminals to steal people’s pictures and personal data that they end up using to create fake profiles online with fake names that make its harder for authorities in Africa to track down cyber criminals. Unfortunately many African countries’ security policies do not cover these areas and according to libertarians people should have freedom to do as they wish online including but not limited to using their identity of choice like Foot My Ass, Lick my fingers, Jack of Jacks, Freddy Mercury (the original Freddy mercury, he of the Bohemia Rhapsody fame and then lead singer of the Queen band died more than two decades ago) among million others of people who don’t exist or whose identities have been stolen without their knowledge. Research conducted in Australia in 2011 established that organizations did not monitor the use of social media sites including identities their staff used online.

The thriving “underground economy” in Africa has made obtaining illegal funds easier and that is why we must laud Barclays bank’ move in UK for discontinuing funds transfer for a money transfer system that was suspected to be used to ship illicit money to fund terror in East Africa. In Somalia, a lawless country where the Westgate attackers are said to have trained before they mercilessly killed innocent citizens, the underground economy controlled by terror groups is primarily of sellers, buyers and markets that follow no law acceptable anywhere else apart from the world of criminals. Cyber crooks primary focus is to obtain illegally the personal details, financial and retails accounts to steal money through unauthorized transfers to the offender. Organized crooks then use the proceeds to finance other offenses such as terrorist attacks that took place in Westgate shopping mall in Westland area of Nairobi, the Kenyan capital. In Africa, the use of the Internet by criminals has made it very difficult to investigate crimes and prosecute offenders. A survey conducted in east Africa slightly over a year ago, more than 40 per cent of Internet users in the region by then did not use their real identities. That has made it a tough mission to identify perpetrators as well as a number of jurisdiction problems during investigation and prosecution stages. The fact that theft of identity and personal data crime can lead to more dangerous offenses signifies urgent need to invest more in crime prevention measures in African countries. Many cyber crime experts I have met believe that investing in crime prevention measures is vital for the region’s future and curbing theft and sale of personal information is one of them.

Contador Harrison