The Ironies of Technological Crime

I’ve heard of many motives for crime, but this is the first time I heard of being a libertarian as a motive. Ross Ulbricht, the libertarian in question, ran the largest online criminal marketplace in the world. Customers could order a hitman, a forged document, or addictive drugs.

Ross Ulbricht
Ross Ulbricht

Ulbricht’s downfall began when he found that one of his employees was embezzling from him. Ulbricht reached out to one of the professional assassins on his site, and asked that the employee be killed.  In addition, he specified, the employee should be tortured before meeting his untimely end. Fortunately the assassin was a law-enforcement plant who sent back a fake photo of the completed hit. Ulbricht sent him a thank-you email, saying “I’m pissed that I had to kill him…but what is done is done…I just can’t believe he was so stupid…I just wish more people had some integrity.”
Talk about  a moral blind spot!
The FBI converged on the Glen Park branch of the San Francisco library and waited. A man in his late twenties with brown wavy hair settled down with his laptop in the quiet of the science fiction section and began typing away…Suddenly the silence was broken when a young woman charged toward the young man screaming, “I’m so sick of you!”. In an instant, she was upon him and grabbed the laptop right off the table. [this was important, because he had entered all the passwords at that point]. Then the other supposed library users rushed him.
Ross Ulbricht had been the kind of kid any parent would be proud of, an Eagle Scout from Austin, Texas, who had a MS in engineering and science. But he had lost his interest in science in favor for libertarianism. He wrote in his LinkedIn profile that he now wished to “use economic theory to abolish the widespread and systemic use of force by institutions and government against mankind.”
The book “Future Crimes” tells this story, and it is worth reading if just for the ingenuity that criminals keep displaying in it. Most of the book is about current crimes, but the possibilities in the future are hair-raising.
We are already in an age where technology outpaces any scenario even a mentally ill paranoid type could dream up.
For instance:
1. That babycam that lets you see what your baby is doing from afar can be taken over by a stranger. Normally you use your cell phone to control the camera, and even talk via a speaker to your child. But one mom heard a man’s voice coming from her babies room. The camera was moving, but she had not been moving it. When the hacker, via the camera, saw the parents arrive in the child’s room, he unleashed a stream of obscenities until the father yanked the camera cord from the wall.
2. Your teakettle could be spying on you, as some displeased Russian custom officials found when they examined some Chinese teakettles. The kettles contained wi-fi cards capable of spreading malware to any open Internet network within two hundred meters and were able to relay secret messages back to China. The Chinese also installed these cards in clothing irons.
3. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce, often critical of China, had blocked Chinese cyber attacks in the past, but its luck ran out in late 2011 when it discovered that its Internet enabled thermostat had created a back door to its internal corporate network, and in fact was communicating with an internet address in China.
4. A hacker can be taking videos with your cell phone, and recording what you say as you move around the landscape.
5. If you buy a self-driving car, if and when they become available, you could end up like the horror movie “Christine”, except instead of the car having a vengeful personality, it could be taken over by a hacker, and you could be driven off screaming to a remote location, unable to open the windows or the doors. Though my guess is that the car will have a manual override.
6. Paranoid of the NSA (National Security Agency)? You should be, since individual NSA analysts were using the agency’s vast spying tools to target their boyfriends, girlfriends, spouses, and ex-lovers. These analysts read emails and listened to phone calls.
7. If you are a soldier in a secret area in the Mideast, don’t upload a photo of yourself to Facebook. Chances are the photo will have “geolocation” information in it, that will tell your enemy (if he is looking at Facebook), where exactly you are.
8. The laptop you are using right now could be taking pictures of you. I hope you have combed your hair.
9. As far as trusting government competence – in 2011, Israel’s government discovered that its “biometrics” database of its citizens had been stolen including names, dates of birth, social security numbers, and medical records. In the U.S. it was even worse when perhaps 21 million personnel records of the Office of Personnel Management (OPM) were stolen. Apart from what you might expect, OPM is the agency that asks your neighbors what they know about you that could be used to blackmail you, before they hire you for sensitive positions.  And they store this information in their database.
10. As far as trusting the competence of private companies – in 2013, the data broker Experian mistakenly sold the personal data of nearly two-thirds of all Americans to an organized crime group in Vietnam. This crime group had posed as a U.S. private investigation firm. The data ended up being put up for sale on dozens of hacker web sites.

One of the scary points made by author Marc Goodman in “Future Crimes” is that an amateur criminal now can get tools developed by ingenious crimeware producers.  Then either on his own, or as part of an actual underground criminal corporation – he can rob vast numbers of people. It makes much more sense for him to do that than to linger in a dark alley hoping prey will come along.

The future bodes ill, if we do not take a much more paranoid attitude toward our vulnerabilities. Various companies are researching ways to make many of our home devices intelligent. This involves linking them to the internet. If this is not done securely, then your home could be set on fire by a hacker, or he could just spy on you. Even worse, when robots come into their own, they could be hacked, and could do damage to you because some hacker on the other side of the world takes charge of them via the internet.

It amazes me, reading this book, how intelligent, creative, hard-working people can form entire criminal underground corporations dedicated to stealing your possessions. These criminal corporations even have customer service and other business practices that we see in the legitimate world.

The book also shows that our technology is like having a wolf by the ears – there are problems holding on to it, and even worse problems letting go.

Future Crimes – Marc Goodman (2015)




2 thoughts on “The Ironies of Technological Crime

  1. Absolutely terrifying. Add in cyber bullying (which is endemic here in the uk), spying by our own intelligence agencies, and the clever use made of the internet (sometimes) by terrorists, and you have to wonder if the advantages of the net aren’t being eclipsed by all these activities.

  2. Yes – is the internet on balance positive or negative? Personally, I’ve benefited in some ways and learned a lot from it. But I’ve also been hurt by it. The author of the book, Marc Goodman, makes various suggestions for a massive effort to cope with existing and new technologies that will soon be available, but I wonder if the various cash strapped governments will do it. He also has ideas to mobilize the public to create a kind of immune system on the internet, but that doesn’t sound all too likely either, without leadership. He says some of the new technologies actually present a “existential threat”. He has a web page in his book site: “” which lists some precautions web-surfers should take. It seems to me that our governments are strangely passive. Perhaps because no voters are clamoring for spending on this. In the U.S. we have spent huge amounts on global-warming research, and probably in Paris will commit to spending much more to solve the issue – but we haven’t spent the money on non-military defense. For instance, we should harden our electric grid against a solar-storm – or a nuclear blast in the atmosphere – since without an electric grid, we will have no water being pumped, no food being refrigerated, etcetera. I don’t know what we’ve done about cyber-crime, but the author says that the advantage is growing for the criminals. He also says that when household appliances and other items are fully linked to the internet, it will get much worse.

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