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DiploNews – Issue 21 – 10 May 2000

DiploNews – Issue 21 – May 10, 2000

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"Loveletter" Virus

As we become more and more dependant on computer networks and the Internet in every aspect of our lives, we, as individuals and society, are becoming more vulnerable to attacks on these networks. The damage caused last week by the rapid spread of the "loveletter" virus has shown that no one is immune: the e-mail servers of the Pentagon, the British Parliament and NASA, among many others, were shut down temporarily. And such attacks are no longer the concern solely of system administrators of large companies or organisations.

The loveletter virus made headline news worldwide for several days. Those of us with computers are installing new anti-virus software. Those of us without computers are wondering how we could be affected by this or a similar virus, which may attack computers in our governments or banks. Even those who are not aware of the danger may be affected – for example, international aid agencies operating in developing countries depend on these computer networks for communication and information.

Wired has a collection of news articles about the spread of the loveletter virus and attempts to find and apprehend the creator of the virus.

Convention on Crime in Cyber-Space

How can governments control or prevent crime in cyber-space? On 27 April 2000 the Council of Europe released the first version of a convention on crime in cyber-space for discussion and commentary by both public and private interest groups. This text, to be finalised by a group of experts by December 2000 and adopted by the Committee of Ministers and open for signature as early as Autumn 2001, will be the "first international treaty to address criminal law and procedural aspects of various types of offending behaviour directed against computer systems, networks or data as well as other similar abuses."

The need for such a convention has recently become clear: attacks on commercial websites by hackers have shown that the damage these "cyber-terrorists" may cause in the future is immense. The draft convention defines cyber-criminality to include "computer hacking and hacking devices, illegal interception of data and interference with computer systems, computer-related fraud and forgery…on-line child pornography, including the possession of such material after downloading, as well the reproduction and distribution of copyright protected material."

One of the difficulties in dealing with crime in cyber-space is in enforcing laws. The Council of Europe draft text addresses this issue: parties to the convention "will be obliged to empower their national authorities to carry out computer searches and seize computer data, require data-subjects to produce data under their control, preserve or obtain the expeditious preservation of vulnerable data by data-subjects. The interception of data transmitted through networks, including telecommunication networks, is also under discussion. These computer-specific investigative measures will also imply co-operation by telecom operators and Internet Service Providers, whose assistance is vital to identify computer criminals and secure evidence of their misdeeds." International cooperation will be required in order to apprehend cyber-criminals, as the effects of cyber-crime perpetrated in one location may be felt all around the world.

The full press release, issued on 27 April 2000, and the text of the Convention are available.

Internet for International Social and Political Protest

Many of the same method used by hackers or "cyber-terrorists" to attack computer systems are also used for social or political protest movements. Stefano Baldi, head of the Statistical Office at the Policy Planning Unit of the Italian Ministry of Foreign Affairs and DiploEdu lecturer, writes about the use of the Internet for international social and political protest. Using the recent protests in Seattle during the third World Trade Organisation Ministerial Conference as a case study, Baldi shows how information technology can be used to organise, spread and carry out protest worldwide. Methods range from extensive use of e-mail and discussion boards to creation of fake websites, virtual sit-ins, use of Internet for information and counter-information, and Internet audio and video broadcasting. Baldi concludes that "in protest carried out through the Internet, governments and international organisations are often at a disadvantage. This is due to the fact that they are structured as hierarchies; therefore their capacity to react to these electronic attacks is rather slow."

Baldi's paper is now available.

The paper is also available on our hypertext system . If you would like to contribute to the discussion on this topic currently underway among students and lecturers in our distance learning course you may access this document and follow the instructions to add your references or comments to the text. If you need help with this process or have questions, please contact us.

Internet Censorship

While government intervention to reduce crime in cyber-space now seems reasonable and even essential, steps in this direction raise the question of other sorts of government intervention or control of the Internet. A recent survey by Freedom House warns that Internet censorship is the latest threat to freedom of the press. An increasing number of national governments are restricting Internet access for their citizens. Approximately 45 countries now restrict Internet access on the pretext of protecting the public from subversive ideas or violation of national security, including Azerbaijan, Belarus, Burma, China, Cuba, Iran, Iraq, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Libya, North Korea, Saudi Arabia, Sierra Leone, Sudan, Syria, Tajikistan, Tunisia, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, and Vietnam (from a report by Reporters Sans

Freedom House reports that:

  • Last year in Russia, the successor to the KGB began forcing Internet service providers (ISPs) to install surveillance equipment, allowing them to monitor Internet communications without a court order.

  • Burma's "cyberspace warfare center" hacks into computers that receive or send forbidden messages.

  • Chinese "cyber-dissidents" have been imprisoned.

  • In many Middle Eastern countries, where official censorship of traditional media still largely applies, access to the web is restricted to government servers, and thus subject to surveillance.

The full report on the Freedom House survey is available on their website.

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