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Big tech must be forced to tackle online child sexual exploitation and grooming

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fraudsters tricking UK Instagram users

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.

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EU prepares for WannaCry-style hacking attempts ahead of European Parliament elections in May

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EU prepares for WannaCry-style hacking attempts

Europol has announced that law enforcement agencies across EU member states are preparing to counter cross-border hacking attempts ahead of the European Parliament elections at the end of May.

Bracing for cyber attacks on democratic institutions, think tanks and non-profit organisations ahead of the vote, the European Council has formally adopted an EU Law Enforcement Emergency Response Protocol, which Europol said would serve as a tool to support law enforcement authorities across the union by providing an immediate response to major cross-border hacking attempts.

The protocol, which gives Europol’s European Cybercrime Centre (EC3) a central role in responding to these types of threats, is intended to offer member states with a rapid assessment of hacking attempts, as well as the ability to share critical information in a secure and timely manner.

Under the terms of the protocol, EC3 will help member state law enforcement agencies coordinate the international aspects of any investigation into cross-border hacking attempts.

The adoption of the protocol comes after major cyber attacks such as WannaCry and NotPetya that targeted national infrastructure and private businesses across Europe and elsewhere in 2017 demonstrated that member states were insufficiently prepared for the evolving nature of hackers’ methods.

Noting that the prospect of a major cyber attack having repercussions in the physical world is no longer the stuff of science fiction, Europol said the protocol complements existing EU crisis management mechanisms, and will help law enforcement agencies across tackle cyber security events of a malicious and suspected criminal nature.

Commenting on the adoption of the protocol, Wil van Gemert, Deputy Executive Director of Operations at Europol, said in a statement: “It is of critical importance that we increase cyber preparedness in order to protect the EU and its citizens from large scale cyber-attacks.

“Law enforcement plays a vital role in the emergency response to reduce the number of victims affected and to preserve the necessary evidence to bring to justice the ones who are responsible for the attack.”

The protocol was launched after the UK’s National Audit Office (NAO) last week criticised the British government’s efforts to prepare for major cyber attacks from hacking groups or hostile nation states such as Russia.

The NAO said Britain remains vulnerable to hacking attempts that could affect crucial infrastructure, domestic networks, and businesses.

NAO chief Amyas Morse commented: “The government has demonstrated its commitment to improving cyber security.

“However, it is unclear whether its approach will represent value for money in the short term and how it will prioritise and fund this activity after 2021.”

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Online fraudsters tricking UK Instagram users out of millions through bogus ‘get rich quick’ schemes

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fraudsters tricking UK Instagram users

Scammers are using adverts for sham investment schemes to con money out of UK Instagram users, a British anti-fraud agency has warned.

Action Fraud, the UK’s national reporting centre for fraud and cyber crime, has cautioned users of the photo-sharing platform after hundreds of people got in touch with it to say they had lost money after falling for bogus “get rich quick” investment schemes advertised  on the Facebook-owned service.

In total, 365 reports were made to Action Fraud about these types of scams between October 2018 and February 2019.

Victims who contacted the organisation lost £3,168,464 ($4.2 million) over this period, which works out to an average loss of around £8,900 per person.

The number of people targeted by the scam in the UK is likely to be much higher, as some victims choose not notify authorities after falling for this type of fraud, often owing to the embossment of having done so.

After convincing Instagram users to sign up for bogus schemes, online fraudsters typically ask for an initial £600 “investment” to be sent via bank transfer, which they claim will be multiplied by many times over just one 24-hour period.

Once victims have handed over their initial investment, they are soon sent fake screenshots by fraudsters showing how their money has grown, and are told to send a fee to release their profits.

After sending this second payment, victims receive no further contact from the fraudsters behind the scam.

Warning members of the British public about the fraud, Inspector Paul Carroll of Action Fraud said: “Opportunistic fraudsters are taking advantage of unsuspecting victims who are going about their day-to-day lives on social media.

“It’s vital that you follow the simple steps below to make sure you don’t fall victim to this fraud.

“If you think you have been a victim, contact Action Fraud.”

Action Fraud has offered advice on how to avoid falling victim to this type of social media scam, cautioning user of Instagram and other platforms never to send money to people they do not know whom they have met online.

Last week, Action Fraud warned private tenants over online deposit scams, which involve bogus landlords tricking victims into handing over money to rent a home before disappearing with their cash.

The agency said it has received reports of scammers claiming to be online landlords to trick would-be tenants into sending money on the pretence they have secured a home to live in.

Prior to viewing the property, scammers ask victims to hand over a deposit along with one month’s rent upfront, before making off with the money.

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US and European investigators knock xDedic cyber crime marketplace offline

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xDedic cyber crime marketplace

A coalition of law enforcement authorities from the US and Europe have taken down an illicit online marketplace that is said to have generated tens of millions of dollars through the sale of access to compromised computers and consumer data that could be used for the purposes of identity theft and other types of fraud.

Prosecutors in Florida, the FBI and Europol were among the organisations that last week targeted servers and domain names linked to the xDedic Marketplace, which is thought to have been run by a group of Russian-speaking cyber hackers.

Users of the marketplace, which operated on both the dark and surface web, could run searches for compromised computer credentials sorted by a number of parameters, including price, geographic location and operating system.

Last Thursday, investigators in Belgium and Ukraine effectively knocked the website offline after executing a number of seizure orders.

The investigation that led to last week’s action uncovered evidence that the website may have facilitated fraud worth more than $68 million, and that its administrators ran a number of servers in locations across the globe in a bid to avoid the marketplace being taken down.

The platform’s administrators also used cryptocurrency Bitcoin to conceal the identities of its administrators, buyers, and sellers, and to shield the location of the servers through which it was powered.

In a statement, the US Prosecutor’s Office for the Middle District of Florida said: “The victims span the globe and all industries, including local, state, and federal government infrastructure, hospitals, 911 and emergency services, call centres, major metropolitan transit authorities, accounting and law firms, pension funds, and universities.”

The operation that led to the takedown of xDedic included the participation of the IRS, US Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s Homeland Security Investigations, the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, the Federal Prosecutor’s Office and the Federal Computer Crime Unit of Belgium, the National Police and the Prosecutor General’s Office of Ukraine, and the German Bundeskriminalamt.

Separately, Europol has announced that the takedown of webstresser.org in April of last year has provided a wealth of information that has allowed Dutch and British investigators to track down the perpetrators of Distributed Denial of Service (DDoS) attacks.

Webstresser.org, which was said to have been behind more than four million DDoS attacks on businesses across the globe, was the largest marketplace of its kind on the internet.

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