Both criminals and police are using the Internet | Science| In-depth reporting on science and technology | DW | 21.02.2013
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Both criminals and police are using the Internet

The European Police Congress focused on cyberspace security, but also on using social networks to track down criminals. But they're also finding out that they can make friends on Facebook.

It's an interesting allegation: China supposedly has a secret army of hackers engaged in cyber attacks on the United States. Should the assertion by the American security company Mandiant be accurate, then computer specialists have been successfully attacking US government agencies, media corporations and other companies for years.

The claim came just at the beginning of the 16th European Police Congress, which took place on Tuesday and Wednesday (19-20.02.2013) in Berlin. Of course the Chinese Foreign Ministry immediately denied the allegation, in turn accusing the US of being responsible for cyber attacks against Chinese institutions.

The current dispute between the two superpowers dramatically illustrates the dimensions the virtual battlefield has taken on, both at state and commercial level. According to research by US-based security company Symantec, there were some 5.5 billion cyber attacks on the World Wide Web in 2011. That's an 81-percent increase over the previous year. According to its vice-president, Jürgen Maurer, Germany's Federal Criminal Police Office (BKA) registered around 60,000 cases of cyber crime in the same time period.

The convention hall for the 16th European Police Congress Copyright: Wolfgang Kumm/dpa

The European Police Congress focussed on the risks and opportunities of the Internet


Maurer said that one "cannot even conjecture" how broad this dark area is; there is no clear image of the cyber threat. Such comments could keep even specialists and certainly the public awake at night.

Hans-Georg Maassen, president of the German foreign intelligence agency BfV, said it is therefore crucial that "we do not run after technology." But Internet criminals are often many steps ahead of investigators, which is why Maassen believes powerful intelligence agencies are necessary at home and abroad in order to fight enemies in the virtual world. Germany's Federal Office for Information Security (BSI), based in Bonn, is only responsible for ensuring that the infrastructure works properly and remains stable, but it has no powers of investigation or surveillance. 

At the Berlin conference, Maassen described some of the methods his agency uses to track down hackers, Jihadists and right-wing extremists on the Net. Technical tools can be implemented, for instance, to filter texts and videos for information about suspicious people or glean information about signs and symbols used in such circles. A second, decisive step is discovering the identity of a suspect by way of an IP-address. It may sound simple, but it's actually quite complicated as wanted persons change computers and servers quickly and frequently. Traces to suspects then often disappear.

Like a highway without a speed limit

Most experts agree that German security authorities are far from possessing weapons on par with cyber criminals, which is why the former director of Europol, Max-Peter Ratzel, believes being present in social networks like Facebook is so essential. Yet Germany is rather "weak" in this area compared to other countries, Ratzel said. By "presence," Ratzel means not only secretly tracking Internet users, but also possessing one's own Facebook and Twitter accounts. Use of such public forums also instills trust, he said.

A hand holding a smartphone with the logo of the police of the German state of Hesse Photo: Arne Dedert dpa/lhe

Police are already using social networks to hunt down criminals

The real trailblazers in Europe in this respect are Great Britain, Belgium and the Netherlands, he said.

For his part, Nick Keane of the British College of Policing, noted at the Berlin conference that the Internet is like a highway without a speed limit. And with no police around, people no longer feel safe on the highway.

Manhunt success thanks to social networks

Axel Brockmann, Chief of Police in Hanover in the German state of Lower Saxony, pointed out how helpful police accounts in social networks can be for fighting crime even outside the virtual world. He noted eight different crimes - including sexual offenses, grievous bodily harm and larceny - which were solved through manhunt announcements on Facebook.

Lower Saxonypolice also use Facebook for the recruitment of future police officers and the career development of existing officers, Brockmann said. According to one survey, 75 percent of applicants for training with his police had read about the vacant positions on the Internet. "This presence has had a very, very positive influence on the image of the police," he said.

"The police - your friend and helper" is a slogan from the analog age - but it seems also to fit in the digital world.

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