Following trends in the development of digital cultures often means being caught between two all too familiar ways of understanding the digital. One follows closely the ins and outs of various changes, seeing change as being so fast that it is almost impossible to follow. The other tends to see long term trends ignoring minor changes to look for overarching movements. The former tends to follow technologies, while the latter tends to epochal shifts in culture and society. Both grasp important issues in digital culture but taken separately they tend to be misleading. On the one hand there is an over-emphasis on constant change which ignores underlying trends and, on the other, there is usually an assertion of some extraordinarily significant major cultural shifts that are applied evenly to all cultures ignoring variations.
But connecting them offers analyses that pay attention to neither the flashy, and often minor, changes between such as Ipad and Ipad2, or three or four and so on, or to the sudden irruption of an epochal change that suggests our world is entirely different. Cybercrime is a good lever to help see that treating the two as being in opposition is not much help to analysis.
In cybercrime there is, of course, constant change in technologies as new viruses, phishing attacks, malware and more emerge. Cybercrime has also been considered an epochal change in the nature of crime, with everyone suddenly subject to direct attack, as if the muggers on the street now crouched just behind our laptop. Yet, taken in these terms they are not much help to understanding. Software is known to be highly malleable and so innovation is a constant possibility, yet the main forms of attack remain well known and have been around for as long as computer networks. Social engineering, which involves tricking people into giving out their passwords, or embedding links in emails that when clicked on covertly install software, are just two examples of longstanding techniques. The burglar behind our laptop is also a change but hardly one which grasps the everyday moments of online life nor is it helpful in understanding.
Between such exaggerated stances, and in danger of being obscured by them, are some significant shifts within cybecrime. For example, a long term cybercrime opponent, Neil Campbell on recently retiring stated:
“What we have seen – and this has been inevitable and inexorable – is a trend for governments [to be] heavily involved in espionage, as best as I can tell … And certainly if it is not governments, it is large groups of very well organised people looking… to gain an advantage by stealing intellectual property and information relating to ongoing trade negotiations or contractual negotiations between companies.”
This trend has some evidence behind it with the increasing reports of data hacks of governments and corporations, with the caveat that it’s not entirely clear if this is an increase in reporting or an increase in a type of attack. If it is a trend then it has some significant meaning, in particular it will drive up the complexity of cybercrime with the previously fairly rare ‘zero day’ exploits (that is software weaknesses that had never before been seen being used to exploit systems) becoming more common. This connects to another long term trend in cracking involving the increasing complexity of attacks and the constant ‘peer education’ that crackers conduct, and will lead to a faster rise in the complexity of attacks as zero day exploits are learned, passed around and, in the end, automated. If there are more governments or large scale organisations, including established crime organisations drawn to the net by online gambling, moving into generating exploits then we are in the middle of a significant shift in the cybercrime arms race, one in which the complexity of attacks is likely to rise quickly.
Following trends in digital culture means taking account of the fast pace of technological change and paying attention to the ‘big picture’ changes, sometimes of epochal significance, but it also means refusing to be dazzled by either and pulling them into an understanding of trends that are both everyday and epochal