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Video games and gaming platforms are facilitating serious and organised crime

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Back in the 80s and 90s, few could have imagined how the gaming industry would evolve. From what many observers assumed to be a causal pastime if not a fad, gaming has become the biggest form of entertainment on the planet, with some 2.5 billion people across the world expected to spend $152.1 billion on the activity this year, according to data from Newzoo. In cash terms, that would represent an increase of 9.6% compared to 2018. With the growth of mobile games and the rise of streaming services such as Google’s Stadia and Microsoft’s upcoming Project xCloud, it would take a brave investor to bet against the industry experiencing further expansion, particularly with the increasing global popularity of esports.

Such rapid growth and success seldom come without some degree of criticism. For the gaming industry, this has come in the shape of concern about the health issues associated with spending long periods of time in front of a screen. As well as worries over physical health, concern has also been raised about how gaming could impact people’s mental wellbeing, with the World Health Organisation recognising video game addiction as an official illness in May of this year. While many questions need to be answered about the potential health risks associated with gaming, be they physical or psychological, the potential for gaming platforms to be exploited by criminals is an issue that receives far less attention, despite the fact that anecdotal evidence suggests this is becoming more of a problem.

Last month, UK thinktank the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) published a paper in which it explored how organised criminal gangs are using items purchased or acquired in popular gaming titles to launder their ill-gotten gains. Many games these days allow players to either purchase or accumulate virtual currency and other items that will either aid their progress or make their character more powerful. Some of these can be acquired through the purchase of loot boxes, which many game publishers use to monetise their free titles. Loot boxes have been criticised by some campaigners as a from of gambling, as players who buy them often do not know what they contain. Whether purchased or acquired, these items have value in the real world, and as such can be traded for either cash or cryptocurrency.

At the end of October, US video game developer Valve announced that it had been forced to update its popular Counter Strike: Global Offensive (CS:GO) title as criminals had been using it to launder dirty money. The company said it would now prevent players from trading items while in the game after noticing that “worldwide fraud networks [had] recently shifted to using CS:GO keys to liquidate their gains”.

Back in January, the Independent reported that organised criminals had been using Epic Games’ Fortnite to launder money through its in-game V-bucks currency. Working with cyber security firm Sixgill, the Independent discovered that criminals were buying up V-bucks in bulk before selling them on in large quantities on the dark web, and in smaller number on social media platforms such as Twitter and Instagram.

The popularity of Fortnite has also been exploited by cyber criminals, who have in the past sought to take advantage of players’ keenness to acquire free V-bucks. In June of last year, the UK’s Action Fraud agency warned that cyber scammers were fleecing Fortnite players of cash by tricking them into handing over their Fortnite account details. The hackers placed adverts on social media offering free V-bucks. After clicking through from these, victims were asked to hand over their account details, which the hackers used to log in to their accounts and steal money. Cyber criminals would also offer V-bucks in exchange for victims’ phone numbers, which they would then use to call premium rate lines from which they would profit.

Away from these types of scams and the growing problem of match fixing in esports, perhaps the most worrying ways in which games and gaming platforms are being exploited by criminals relate to grooming. The fact that gamers often communicate with one another anonymously online, and that so many gamers are relatively young, makes games and gaming platforms attractive hunting grounds for sexual predators.

In July of this year, British child protection charity the NSPCC revealed that young people on Amazon’s game-streaming video platform Twitch were among the most likely social media users to report experiencing grooming activity online. Earlier this year, a 41-year-old man was arrested in Florida on suspicion of using Fortnite to initiate sexual activity with children. Anthony Gene Thomas and an accomplice were alleged to have used Fortnite’s voice chat feature to meet minors.

As gaming continues to grow, it is not only likely that these problems will persist, but that criminals will find new ways to exploit the ecosystem of an industry that now dwarfs film, television and music. But just as there is little incentive for games developers to take any real action on gaming addiction, addressing money laundering, fraud and grooming across their products is a low priority.

In much the same way that internet and social media firms have been slow to act on crime facilitated by their platforms, games developers will likely do little to address these issues unless forced to do so through political pressure or legislation. As it makes little difference to their profits if these activities take place across their products or not, investing money in addressing them is probably the last thing on games developers’ minds.

 

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Opinion

Islamist or far right, terrorist prisoners should remain behind bars if there is the slightest suspicion they could still pose a risk

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terrorist prisoners should remain behind bars

The British government last week very sensibly moved to make sure dangerous terrorist prisoners cannot be released halfway through their sentences to maim and murder innocent members of the public. In emergency legislation tabled in Parliament after two Islamists launched bloody attacks over the past few months having both been let out of jail early, UK government ministers sought to prevent extremists from being set free prior to serving at least two-thirds of their sentence. Even then, cases would need to be referred to the Parole Board for consideration before an inmate could be freed, according to the draft legislation. Under British law as it stands, terrorist suspects are automatically released from jail halfway through their sentences even if authorities believe they could still pose a threat.

The unveiling of the proposed new law prompted some commentators to complain that simply locking up terrorists and throwing away the key is no way to deal with radicalised individuals, as is often the case whenever stricter sentencing for these types of offences is floated as an idea. In reality though, while the suggested new measures may be a start, they go nowhere near far enough.

While the multiple terror attacks the UK endured throughout 2017 were not enough to force any meaningful change, one need only look at the events of the past few months to see how desperately reform of current legislation is needed. In November of last year, an Islamist extremist who had been let out of jail early after being convicted of plotting to launch attacks on several London landmarks stabbed two people to death while attending a conference on rehabilitating offenders in Fishmongers’ Hall near London Bridge.

If it were not for the bravery of members of the public, who tackled Usman Khan before armed police arrived on the scene and shot him dead, it is likely that many more victims would have lost their lives. Khan was handed an indeterminate prison sentence for “public protection” with a minimum jail term of eight years after he was convicted of a range of terrorist offences in 2012, including plotting an attack on the London Stock Exchange. Despite this, he was freed in December 2018, less than a year before he launched his deadly attack.

Just months later, another Islamist extremist stabbed two people in the London suburb of Streatham after being released halfway through a terror-related prison sentence just days earlier. Sudesh Amman was shot dead by a police officer who was part of team keeping him under surveillance due to worries about the danger he posed. Amman was set free after being jailed for possessing documents containing terrorist information and disseminating terrorist publications. If nothing else, the fact the 20-year-old jihadist was released from custody despite being considered so dangerous that he required police surveillance demonstrated just how wrong-headed current UK law is.

How can it be the case that a potentially violent extremist can be let out of prison when he is considered such a threat that he requires a team of detectives to monitor his movements? While it is of course a good thing that officers were on hand to neutralise Amman after he launched his attack, would it not have been better for all concerned if he was not been freed in the first place?

Over the approaching months, scores of convicted terrorists will be coming up for release in Britain, which is one of the reasons the UK government is so keen to push through its new legislation as soon as possible. But while the new law might buy ministers some breathing space by keeping dangerous extremists off the streets in the short term, all it effectively does is kick the problem into the long grass. Even if some extremists are forced to serve the whole of their tariff behind bars, there will be no guarantee they will not hold the same views that inspired their original crimes once they are eventually released from jail. This will be the case whether the offender of is an Islamist or a member of a far-right organisation, although the former group is by some margin a more worrying concern in the UK at present.

As such, the law must act accordingly. A system under which terrorists are handed determinate sentences is no longer fit for purpose, as has been demonstrated repeatedly not only in the UK but also elsewhere. Members of the public deserve to be protected from dangerous extremists, which means none should be allowed to walk the streets until any suspicion that they might pose a risk has been completely discounted. The long and short of the matter is that so long as those harbouring dangerous extremist attitudes are not allowed back on the streets, their chances of acting out their ideological impulses will be much diminished, and you and I will feel safer going  about our business without the fear of being stabbed in the neck by a convicted terrorist whose rightful place is behind bars.

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Opinion

How virtual credit card skimmers successfully target blue-chip firms that should have the resources to repel their attacks

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virtual credit card skimmers

Despite the banking industry’s best efforts and the launch of a multitude of awareness-raising campaigns by law enforcement agencies across the globe, criminals are still able to use ATM machine and point-of-sale (POS) payment system skimmers to harvest consumers’ credit card details with relative ease. In just the past few weeks, a French-Brazilian man was handed a suspended jail sentence in Australia after being convicted of using an ATM skimmer to fleece victims of tens of thousands of dollars, while police in numerous states across the US have reported increased incidents of credit card skimming devices being found attached to payment consoles at petrol station pumps.

If it were not bad enough that the makers of cash machines and POS devices appear to be completely unable to prevent a scam that now seems relatively low-tech in nature, hackers are increasingly turning to a virtual version of credit card skimming that targets information entered by buyers during the checkout process on ecommerce platforms.

Earlier this week, Interpol revealed that it had supported an operation that resulted in the arrest of three suspects in Indonesia who are alleged to have used digital skimming code to steal the personal credit card information of consumers using multiple ecommerce platforms. The international law enforcement agency said the three suspects went on to use the card details they stole to buy electrical equipment before selling it on at a profit.

In collaboration with online security firm Group-IB, Interpol also identified several servers associated with this type of crime and a number of infected websites in six countries in the ASEAN region. The results of the operation demonstrated the relative ease with which virtual credit card skimmers can be deployed, highlighting the fact that they can be difficult to detect and can be bought and deployed by hackers easily for as little as $250.

This type of cyber crime activity is often referred to as Magecart, an umbrella term coined to describe the act of using so-called JavaScript sniffer malware to target ecommerce websites built on the Magento platform. By maliciously injecting a simple yet effective code into such websites, Magecart hackers are able to steal consumers’ card details and personal information as they go through checkout pages at the end of the purchasing process.

Much in the same way as physical skimmers capture credit card information and PINs at ATM and POS machines, JavaScript sniffers record payment card details and personal information such as names, addresses and phone numbers and then send this on to servers controlled by the hackers behind the scam. As well as using this information to make purchases, cyber criminals can also put credit card details on sale in bulk on the dark web, or use the information they steal to commit identity fraud.

While consumers will more often than not get their money back if their credit card information is compromised by JavaScript sniffer malware, companies targeted in such scams can suffer lasting reputational damage, and can in some cases face fines for failing to protect their customers’ data. Despite the potential consequences, businesses that one would assume would have more than adequate resources to direct towards ensuring the security of their IT systems have fallen victim to Magecart-style attacks, including British Airways and Ticketmaster.

This comes down to the fact that JavaScript sniffer code can be so difficult to detect once it has been injected into a website. At the end of December, Malwarebytes security researcher Jérôme Segura explained in a blog post how JavaScript sniffer code can be hidden in such seemingly innocuous website components as wieldy-used boilerplate “free shipping”  image files. Segura noted that media files are good places for hackers to hide such code on account of the fact that most web crawlers and scanners concentrate on HTML and JavaScript files.

While it may seem strange to some observers that the banking industry and global law enforcement agencies have failed to neutralise the threat posed by physical credit card skimmers, the ease with which Magecart hackers can compromise companies’ IT systems makes the threat posed by JavaScript sniffers all the more pernicious. While the success of Interpol’s recent operation demonstrates that it is possible to identify and bring Magecart cyber criminals to justice, the fact that it can take as little as one line of code to compromise ecommerce platforms makes it very difficult to head off these types of attacks before they start producing results.

In March of last year, Group-IB revealed that Magecart malware that took the form of just one line of code had comprised more than 800 websites, including one run in the UK by apparel maker FILA. With finding such code being like searching for a needle in a haystack, it seems likely that Magecart attacks will live as long and happy a life as physical credit card skimming.

 

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Opinion

If the UK press is so racist, why do Prince Andrew’s alleged wrongdoings generate so many more column inches than ‘Asian’ grooming gangs?

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‘Asian’ grooming gangs

Much has been made over recent weeks of the way Meghan Markle has been treated by the British press since she married Prince Harry some 20 months ago. She has, we are told by her supporters, been made to endure the most appalling abuse, particularly at the hands of the UK print media. It has been repeatedly suggested that this has been meted out solely on account of Markle’s skin colour, and has absolutely nothing to do with the manner in which she has conducted herself since joining the royal family. The difference between the coverage she receives and that enjoyed by Prince William’s wife Kate Middleton, it is argued, simply comes down to skin colour.

Accusations of racism are routinely levelled at parts of the British media, and are in some cases well deserved. But whether or not you believe Meghan Markle has been hounded by reporters and journalists due to the fact she is of mixed race, there is little evidence to suggest that Prince Andrew has in any way benefitted from the colour of his skin when it comes to media coverage of his alleged wrongdoings. That is of course entirely correct.

Accusations that the Duke of York may have been involved in sex trafficking should be taken extremely seriously. As should the very well documented fact that he maintained a relationship with the disgraced and now deceased US financier Jeffrey Epstein after he had been convicted of procuring an underage girl for prostitution and sex trafficking.

Thanks to UK media coverage of his alleged behaviour, Prince Andrew’s life is now almost unrecognisable compared to this time last year. Following weeks of lurid headlines about his party lifestyle and discussion relating to his ability to sweat, the Duke was effectively sacked from the royal family, and lost almost all his “work”. The press did its job; exposing wrongdoing and holding Andrew to account. Having white skin did him few favours on this occasion it would seem, and failed to protect him from an absolute mauling from the British media.

But if the UK press truly is as racist as is often claimed, one could surely expect that it would stop at nothing to investigate repeated revelations about mostly Pakistani Muslim paedophile grooming gangs raping poor white working-class girls with at least the same vigour as it would allegations about the Duke of York? Apparently not.

Last week, the Times of London reported that it had seen a report that showed the UK’s Independent Office for Police Conduct (IOPC) had upheld a complaint that a police officer from Rotherham ignored allegations that such gangs existed because the town “would erupt” if it were  known that Asian men were routinely having sex with under-age white girls. While the story received moderate levels of media coverage for a couple of days, it garnered nothing approaching the attention generated by the allegations relating to Prince Andrew.

There is a pattern here. In the UK, barely a month goes by without reports of “Asian” gangs being brought before the country’s courts to face charges of raping vulnerable young white girls. Earlier this month, the BBC reported that Leeds Crown Court had heard that a grooming gang in Huddersfield preyed on two “young and vulnerable” teenage girls, with one victim estimating she “had sex with up to 300 men”.

In December, the Independent reported that campaigners had called for the UK government to keep a promise to review grooming gang “characteristics” after revealing that more than 18,700 suspected victims of child sexual exploitation were identified by local authorities in 2018-19. In November, the Yorkshire Post reported that five men who sexually exploited young girls in Huddersfield had been handed jail sentences of up to 14 years. To say this is an epidemic would be an extraordinary understatement. In fact, research published by the Quilliam Foundation in 2017 revealed that 84% of “grooming gang” offenders were at the time “South Asian”.

Despite this, the above stories and many others like them receive nothing approaching the blanket coverage the disgraceful allegations against Prince Andrew were rightly given towards the back end of last year. Surely, if the UK media was as racist as some people claim, reports of mostly Pakistani Muslim paedophile gangs raping young white working-class girls would receive at least comparable coverage to the accusations facing the Duke of York? Fortunately for the members of these gangs, it would appear that the British press is beset by a form of racism to which they are immune.

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