Cybercriminals are not who you think they are, writes Jonathan Lusthaus in his latest book, Industry of Anonymity: Inside the Business of Cybercrime. The end result of seven years of fieldwork, for which the Oxford University sociologist interviewed multiple law enforcement agents, cyber security gurus and hackers across global cybercrime hotspots, Lusthaus’s 289-page treatise is an engaging analysis of the internet’s underbelly.
Over the course of eight chapters, Lusthaus charts the journey of cybercrime, from “lone wolves” through to “industrialisation”, correlating the reality of digitisation – so many of the world’s assets and amenities are now online – to the natural advancement of crime as a whole. “This is a far cry from the days when cybercrime was associated with a mental image of a teenager in his mother’s basement,” Lusthaus makes clear in the book’s introduction. “Cybercrime has matured into a large profit-driven industry.”
While the structure of the book is academic – each chapter follows a pattern of point, example and explanation – Lusthaus’s prose flows more naturally than a typical text book. He tells stories, rather than simply reeling off facts, and stresses that understanding the human aspect of cybercrime, namely the personalities and motivations behind it, is as important as the technical expertise required to carry it out. Noting a “distinction between cyber-enabled and cyber-dependent crimes”, Lusthaus dedicates a whole chapter of his book to the “offline dimension” of cybercrime.
“In a number of ways,” Lusthaus argues, “the development of cybercrime is reminiscent of broader trends in organised crime. There is the central financial motivation of organised crime groups, and all the entrepreneurial energy, professionalism, and business-like structures that can come with that focus.” Drawing parallels with Nicholas Pileggi’s Wiseguy, the biography of mobster-turned-informant Henry Hill which formed the basis for Martin Scorsese’s film Goodfellas, Lusthaus gives an accessible insight into how cybercrime has become more organised.
With criminal services such as blackmail, fraud, insider trading and identity theft just some of those made available through “forums” – the umbrella term used to describe online marketplaces for cybercrime – Lusthaus explores the different subcultures that exist within this growing economy. There are different rungs and specialisations within cybercrime, Lusthaus tells us. It is no different to any other large-scale industry; markets, i.e. the different kinds of cybercrime, compete and adapt depending on the changing nature of demand.
Crucially, Industry of Anonymity: Inside the Business of Cybercrime should not be viewed as a book just about computers. Rather, Lusthaus’s work is poised at the intersection between technology, psychology, sociology and economics. While cybercrime is a secretive industry for the most part, Lusthaus points out that brands and identity still exist within it. Appropriating mob terminology and establishing hierarchies within the forums, he suggests, are indicative of natural human inclinations to eventually add order to chaos where possible.
The book, which is pleasingly light on jargon and acronyms, posits that while the evolution of the cybercrime industry is “a tragedy” overall, law enforcement cannot “arrest its way out” of the problem.
Lusthaus’s thesis is less about developing new techniques of capturing criminals than it is about minimising the risks of new ones being recruited. “Some attempt must be made to stem the flow of cybercriminals in the first place,” he suggests. And refreshingly for a book about people breaking the law, Lusthaus’s tone remains non-judgmental. He gives an empathetic account of the structures which foster cybercriminal motivations.
Industry of Anonymity: Inside the Business of Cybercrime is a refreshing plug at making the best out of a bad situation. “If this talent pool could be diverted away from cybercrime,” he writes wistfully, “and into legitimate industry, there would be two positive developments. Not only would levels of cybercrime drop dramatically, but many positive contributions could emerge from the endeavours of these capable individuals.”
Rohan Banerjee is a special projects writer at the New Statesman