While aging hedonists old enough to have had first-hand experience of 1990s rave culture will likely appreciate the drivers behind a recent resurgence in the popularity of MDMA, other emerging drug trends are more likely to leave members of the so-called “trainspotting generation” scratching their heads in bemusement. People who lived through ecstasy’s golden age who also have some familiarity with the misery heroin addiction can bring would probably have little difficulty understanding the growing popularity of synthetic opioids such as fentanyl, but might find the rate at which young people are now abusing anti-anxiety medications such as Xanax something of an anomaly. Unfortunately, Generation Xers who are now parents themselves, especially those living in the US and the UK, are increasingly finding that their children are turning to illicit pharmaceuticals widely available on the dark web.
Xanax, which is legitimately prescribed to treat anxiety and panic attacks in America, has long been abused in the US, but is now becoming increasingly popular among British teenagers. The tranquiliser is a benzodiazepine, a class of psychoactive drug that also includes diazepam and lorazepam. Benzodiazepines are potentially addictive, and can kill if mixed with other drugs and/or alcohol. In the US, Xanax has been abused as a party drug for many years, and is commonly referenced in popular culture, particularly by American rap artists. In November last year, US rapper Lil Peep died after overdosing on Xanax, fentanyl and a number of other drugs, prompting a selection of other hip-hop artists to announce their commitment to stop abusing prescription medication. In terms of influencing their impressionable young audiences, this is likely to have little effect, with the abuse of painkillers and other prescription drugs now firmly part of mainstream American culture.
As was the case with fentanyl, the abuse of illicit Xanax appears to have now crossed the Atlantic to the UK, where teenagers are able to buy the drug and others like it with extraordinary ease on the dark web and social media platforms. The problem has become so acute in Britain that Xanax is now being referred to as UK teenagers’ drug of choice. According to researchers from the Oxford Internet Institute, more than a fifth Xanax trades that take place on the dark web originate from the UK, making Britain second only to the US globally in terms of the number of times the drug is bought from illicit hidden marketplaces. Yesterday, the BBC reported that it had discovered that Xanax is being offered to teenagers on surface web social media platforms such as Instagram and Facebook, prompting Nick Hickmott from UK addiction charity Addaction to say: “It’s definitely part of our youth culture now. How many young people are using it is debatable, and obviously what’s really important is we get some really good statistics around this and some really good records so we know exactly what we’re dealing with, but it’s enough to be showing some concern.”
In January, Northern Ireland’s Public Health Agency (PHA) and Health and Social Care Board (HSCB) warned of the dangers of misusing drugs such as Xanax, and called for a government review into the growing number of people who are becoming unwell after taking them. The two agencies said the fact that the drugs are rarely prescribed in Northern Ireland suggests people are obtaining them from street dealers or the internet, noting that the quality and strength of substances bought from these sources can vary wildly. While it is clear that some young people in the UK abuse Xanax as a party drug, evidence suggests that many are using the sedative to self-medicate. Speaking with the Guardian earlier this month, a teacher said she had encountered students who buy Xanax illicitly to treat metal health disorders such as anxiety, a situation she said only compounds their condition. Bizarre as it may seem to older people whose experimentation with drugs has long since passed, young people’s obsession with dangerous prescription medication that effectivity turns them into zombies appears to be growing in Britain, much in the same way as it did in America.
At the end of January, Police Scotland issued a warning after it emerged that more than 20 Xanax-related deaths had taken place across the country. Days later, the London Evening Standard reported that six schoolgirls had to be rushed to hospital after becoming ill and unable to walk after apparently taking the drug. The reason as to why young people have turned away from more traditional recreational drugs towards prescription medication remains hard to determine, with some experts suggesting Millennials are more anxious than previous generations partly thanks to their relatively closeted upbringings, and others claiming the phenomenon is simply fashionable at the moment thanks to celebrity culture, and will pass as soon as a new drug trend emerges. But while it is clear that illicit Xanax is doing very little to help those young people who take it deal with anxiety issues, and has the potential to cause great harm to those who abuse it for recreational purposes, the fact that the drug is so easy to buy on the dark web and social media platforms means the problem is likely to get worse before it gets any better.
Regulators must make an example of British Airways following its massive data breach
Analysis carried out by risk consulting firm Kroll revealed earlier this month that reports of data beaches submitted by British organisations to the UK Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) rose by 75% over the course of the past two years, suggesting businesses across the country were gearing up for a new era of transparency ushered in by Europe’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), which came into force at the end of May. Under the terms of GDPR, organisations must report personal data breaches to the relevant local authority within 72 hours of becoming aware of any such incident, or face a large fine of up to €10 million ($11.7 million) or 2% of global turnover, whichever is greater.
This is intended to prevent companies from covering up major breaches in order to protect their corporate image or brand. Just how seriously businesses are taking the new rules was made clear earlier this month by the speed with which British Airways (BA) went public with news that hackers had managed to steal the credit card details and personal information of nearly 400,000 of its customers. But while the airline may have avoided being hit with a fine for failing to go public quickly enough, it could still face a significant financial penalty if the breach is found to be a result of its failure to secure its customers’ information properly.
The company was quick to claim it had been hit with an extremely “sophisticated malicious criminal attack”, and issued the usual platitudes about taking customers’ data security seriously that companies typically fall back on in these types of scenarios, despite all evidence pointing to the contrary. What made the BA breach particularly damaging for the firm was the fact that hackers managed to obtain full sets of customers’ credit card details, including CVV numbers. This would have meant that cyber criminals with access to the data would have been able to use it immediately to make purchases from pretty much anywhere on the internet, a fact that prompted a number of banks to take the unusual step of pre-emptively cancelling cards belonging to customers whose information may have been compromised.
As companies are not allowed to store CVV data on their systems, it is thought the hackers behind the attack harvested data from the firm’s checkout page in real time while customers were entering their card details. BA has said it is investigating the breach “as a matter of urgency”, and the UK’s National Crime Agency and National Cyber Security Centre are also assessing the attack. But regardless of their findings, it is vital the company faces a severe financial penalty for allowing its customers’ data to be compromised.
Firms the size of BA have the resources to ensure they stay one step ahead of cyber scammers, be they sophisticated or not. If they choose not to do so, they should face serious consequences. Online security experts from RiskIQ have said Russian hackers were responsible for the breach, pointing specifically at the Magecart group, which is said to have been behind a similar attack on the Ticketmaster website in June. RiskIQ researcher Yonathan Klijnsma, who analysed code from BA’s website and app, claimed to have discovered evidence of a “skimming” script designed to steal financial data from online payment forms.
“This particular skimmer is very much attuned to how British Airway’s payment page is set up, which tells us that the attackers carefully considered how to target this site instead of blindly injecting the regular Magecart skimmer,” Klijnsma wrote, seemingly suggesting the hackers may have taken advantage of weaknesses in BA’s IT infrastructure. Either way, it is alarming that the breach was allowed to continue for two weeks before it was detected and reported.
It is likely that BA will claim it was targeted by a hacking organisation so sophisticated and cunning that it would have been next to impossible for it prevent the attack, and that it should face no regulatory punishment as a consequence. However, if GDPR and similar legislation in other parts of the world are to stand any chance of forcing organisations to take better care of consumers’ data, it is surely in cases such as these where punishment should be applied. Major corporations will only start truly taking the security of their customers’ information seriously if they are forced to do so.
Allowing BA to wriggle off the hook after the latest in a long and sorry line of major data breaches at other companies simply sends the wrong message, and suggests GDPR will have no real impact. While most BA customers who had their details stolen might have been lucky enough to avoid having money taken from their credit cards after the breach, their personal details will now be doing the rounds on the dark web, leaving them exposed to identity thieves. Many could be dealing with the consequences for years to come, which is one of the main reasons BA should be made an example of. The ICO can and should make full use of its GDPR powers and hit BA where it hurts.
Big tech must be forced to tackle online child sexual exploitation and grooming
After years of rapid growth, major social media firms have seen their fortunes plummet over recent months, with both Twitter and Facebook suffering large slumps in their share prices after breaking out disappointing new user numbers over the summer. Whether or not privacy issues, the dissemination of fake news or accusations of political bias are turning users away from these platforms, it appears they are heading back down to earth at a fast pace. A major reason for their fall might have something to do with their almost maniacal pursuit of growth at all cost, regardless of the impact this might have on the wellbeing of their users. Just last month, Facebook co-founder Aaron Greenspan told the Telegraph that Mark Zuckerberg had designed the platform to be as addictive as possible, ignoring warnings that lives could be lost as a result of the way in which it is structured.
While it might be a little strong to suggest that Zuckerberg cares little as to whether lives are lost as a result his company’s activities, social media firms in general appear less than willing to invest in measures designed to protect their users from potentially harmful content. While spending billions of dollars on research and development each year in pursuit of the next big tech trend, these companies spend only a fraction of their huge profits on eradicating illegal content from their networks, be it related to drugs, weapons, people smuggling or child sexual exploitation.
Earlier this week, UK Home Secretary Sajid Javid delivered a speech in which he told major tech firms such as Microsoft, Google and Twitter they must do more to tackle online child sexual exploitation and grooming, and that he would not be afraid to take action against them if they failed to do so. Noting how online paedophiles have become as determined as terrorists to cover their tracks online, Javid told an audience how predators in Western nations such as Britain are increasingly live-streaming child sex abuse shows for as little as £12 ($15.40), and that the gangs behind this growing industry are offering their customers the option to choose the hair colour and other characteristics of their victims. Javid said that while he has been impressed with the progress large technology firms have made in tackling terrorist material on their platforms, he now wants to see a similar level of commitment when it comes to child sexual exploitation. “I am not just asking for change, I am demanding it,” he said. “How far we legislate will be informed by the action and attitude that industry takes.”
While Javid’s intervention is certainly welcome, it remains to be seen as to whether big tech firms will do more than continue to pay lip service to eradicating child sexual exploitation material and grooming from their networks. Law enforcement agencies across the globe have been complaining about this issue for years, with very little being done on the part of these companies to solve the problem. The fact that surface web platforms are still being used by paedophiles should be a constant source of shame for big tech, which appears reluctant to allocate significant resources to tackling issue, perhaps due to the fact that doing so would not provide an attractive enough return on investment. This is in spite of the fact that evidence suggests the problem is getting worse rather than better.
In April, British child protection charity the NSPCC revealed that Facebook was the most popular platform for paedophiles looking to groom children online. The following month, a report from the Internet Watch Foundation (IWF), which works to remove indecent images of children from the web, revealed that minors as young as three were being coerced into live-streaming indecent images of themselves to online predatory paedophiles using social media platforms. In April of last year, a coalition of law enforcement agencies broke up a network of paedophiles involved in the distribution of child sexual exploitation material through dark web platforms and WhatsApp. Elsewhere, Twitter has been criticised for failing to close accounts belonging to self-confessed paedophiles who used their profiles to openly discuss their attraction to children. Many were found to be using profiles pictures that might appeal to youngsters.
While the problem of child sexual exploitation material and grooming on the internet is complex and will likely take some time to resolve, few outside of the industry would argue that big tech is currently doing enough to tackle the issue. While search giant Google unveiled a free artificial intelligence tool to help businesses and organisations identify indecent images of children on the internet after Javid delivered his speech, these types of efforts appear to be a low priority for companies that are in some cases worth more than nation states. The time for threats has passed. Developing technology to identify online groomers will be a major challenge, but lawmakers around the globe could make a start by fining tech firms that fail to take down child sexual exploitation material within hours of it going up, as has been suggested with terrorist content. The sad truth of the matter is that these companies will only allocate the resources required to tackle the problem if they face serious consequences for failing to do so.
Irrespective of US legal battles, terrorists are plotting to use 3D-printed weapons against us
Regardless of the final outcome of an ongoing US court battle over the online availability of 3D-printed firearms blueprints, the genie is already well and truly out of the bottle when it comes to how easily people are able to get their hands on downloadable weapons. While pro-gun advocates argue the availability of 3D-printed gun blueprints is more a question of freedom and their right to bear arms under the Second Amendment than anything else, firearms control campaigners have rightly raised concerns over how these types of weapons could pose a significant threat if they fall into the wrong hands, where they are all but guaranteed to end up.
Downloading a 3D-printed weapon blueprint allows anybody with a rudimental level of knowledge and access to the right technology to create a plastic gun that is virtually untraceable and could be smuggled past metal detectors. Irrespective of which way the legal battle goes over the availability of 3D-pirnted gun blueprints goes, the information needed to create them is already widely available on the dark web, making the outcome of such proceedings close to irrelevant. And while firearms experts have noted that the current generation of 3D weapons are too flimsy and unreliable to pose a major law enforcement threat, it is all but inevitable that organised criminals and terrorists will look to harness the technology as it advances.
While the prospect of petty criminals and gangsters getting their hands on blueprints for untraceable guns they can make at home is of course concerning, the opportunities 3D-printed weapons could open up for terrorist organisations are perhaps of greater worry. Groups such as al-Qa’ida and Daesh are constantly developing new forms of weapons they hope can be used to attack targets in the West, as well as organisations and individuals in the territories from which they operate. Over the years, jihadi groups such as these have proved adept at creating new types of explosive devices and other weapons they can use to spread terror around the globe, and while more recent attacks across Europe and the US have been more low tech in nature, it would be foolish to assume that Islamist organisations have abandoned more sophisticated methods in favour of lone wolf truck and knife assaults.
In fact, evidence has already emerged that Daesh has been experimenting with creating 3D-pirnted bombs. In November 2016, Popular Mechanics reported that Iraqi forces had discovered a Daesh drone factory that appeared to contain such weapons. The components from which the explosives were constructed were made up of honeycomb structures, suggesting they could have been made using a 3D printer. Security services around the globe have feared for some time that groups such as Daesh might launch bomb attacks in the West using consumer drones after the jihadi organisation did just that close to the Iraqi city of Mosul in October 2016, killing two Kurdish Peshmerga fighters and wounding two French soldiers. Since then, security experts have cautioned that Islamists could use explosive-laden drones to attack events such as this summer’s World Cup football tournament in Russia.
Jihadi terrorist plotters have a rich recent history of coming up with new ways in which to attack Western interests, resulting in the security services of target nations struggling to stay ahead of their innovations. It has now been more than 12 years since the aviation industry was forced to introduce a blanket ban on the carrying on board of liquids measuring over 100ml after a plot was discovered to bring down a transatlantic flight from London to North America in 2006. Last year, the US temporarily banned passengers travelling from certain airports in the Middle East and North Africa from carrying larger electronic devices on board after a jihadi from the UK planned to smuggle bombs “disguised as laptop batteries” on planes. Previously, an al-Qa’ida master bomb maker had experimented with the idea of surgically implanting explosives into suicide bombers’ bodies. Ibrahim al-Asiri, who was reported to have been killed in a coalition drone strike earlier this month, is said to have abandoned the idea in favour of exploring new ways of concealing explosives in electronic devices such as laptops and printers.
While it may be the case that the types of 3D-printed weapon downloads currently available online can only be used to create guns that are too flimsy and unreliable to depend on while attempting to carry out a terrorist attack, the fact that these firearms could already be smuggled past airport security should raise significant fears for security services worldwide. It would appear that Jihadi groups are already exploring how they can use this emerging technology to attack their enemies, and will almost certainly be able to stay at the cutting edge as it develops. As it is now just a matter of time until a sturdy and reliable 3D-printed weapon is developed, it is more vital than ever that our security services are able to stay one step ahead of those who wish to do us harm.
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9 February 2018
9 February 2018
8 February 2018
28 November 2017
28 November 2017
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