15 Controversial Cases of Digital Crime

by admin on December 3, 2010



In the early days of the Internet, cyberspace was often likened to the wild west: a no-rules land of opportunity, where everything was free for the taking.  Except instead of grizzled cowboys and heartless outlaws, this land was ruled by pasty nerds and the socially ill-equipped. And just like the wild west, some spectacular, record-setting heists have taken place even up to recent times. The fifteen most awesome cases of digital theft – committed by individuals, corporations, and countries – are detailed below.  

Apple, Franklin, and the Secret Code



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Who owns digital property? In 1982, Franklin Computer freely admitted to pilfering the code Apple had used to create its own newly released desktop computer. Digital code, Franklin argued, was an intangible material that could not be copyrighted. The courts disagreed, citing some archaic precedent about how “you can’t copy a book, what made you think this was okay?”, and the rest is history. Franklin became synonymous with spellers and ET; Apple with pretty much everything else ever. 

Apple and the Ownership of Media Players



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Apple’s struggle to prove that its digital code constituted a trade secret would continue for decades to come. In 1994, the company again claimed digital theft when the company it hired to develop QuickTime Media Player went on to develop similar media playing systems on behalf of competitors Microsoft and Intel. Lucky for the San Francisco Canyon Company, which created the program, the piracy case was settled out of court when Microsoft and Apple embarked on a collaboration, with Microsoft buying $150 million shares of Apple stock and 3,000 black turtlenecks for Steve Jobs. 

China takes on U.S. Electrical Systems



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U.S. law currently protects companies from competitors who steal secret digital information. Internationally, such theft is quickly becoming a tactic of war — or at least, potential war. In April of 2009, a U.S. counterintelligence committee released the alarming news that Chinese digital spies have infiltrated U.S. electrical grids and are currently copying the networks. Some suspect China of developing a computer code that can one day be activated to destruct the system.  While this is about as scary as the latest New York City blackout — which harmed a whopping “no one” — this tactic is growing with shocking power and scope. 

China takes on U.S. Presidential Campaigns



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During the lead up to the 2008 presidential elections, both the Obama and McCain campaigns were hit with cyber attacks: outside forces gained access to their restricted emails. Again, the FBI sourced the hackers to China. This would be alarming if all the wondrous hacking power of the second largest economy in the world had managed to muster more of a prize than a presidential candidate’s e-mail — something that random Americans acting alone can snag in their free time.

Jeffrey Levy and the No Electronic Theft Act



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In November of 1999, the U.S. Department of Justice sent a message to would-be software pirates everywhere: don’t do it. It was the first conviction under the country’s No Electronic Theft Act and the proverbial sacrificial lamb was Jeffrey Gerard Levy, a 22-year-old student at the University of Oregon. Gerard had hosted a website with over $70,000 of pirated material, though how much of that was ultimately distributed to others via file sharing remains unclear. Though the Oregon courts threatened Levy with jail time, his sentence instead barred him from accessing the Internet from his home computer for a period of two years, though at sentencing, his lawyers said they would negotiate a way for the college senior to complete his degree.  So the message the government sent was more along the lines of: “Don’t do it, we’re serious this time mister. We will totally send you to bed without dessert.  Maybe.”

Carnegie Mellon and the No Electronic Theft Act



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Back in the day, pirates were murderous thugs who killed for sheer joy and were executed on sight.  Modern day pirates are mostly known as purveyors of free porn, scorned by those with an inadequate knowledge of copyright law.  In the days when Internet piracy still required a certain degree of technical know-how, Carnegie Mellon University suspected its first-rate engineering students were unfairly targeted as suspected digital thieves (the word “scurvy” presumably appearing several times in the deposition). But under pressure from the Recording Industry Association of America, the university blocked Internet access to the rooms of 71 students whom it found guilty of illegally sharing barely legal sluts 4 music files. Those students eventually got off easier than even Levy’s light sentence; once the pirating students attended a seminar on copyright law, Carnegie Mellon stopped holding their Internet access hostage. 

South Carolina and the Virtual Juke Box



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It’s one thing for college kids to share music they like with their friends, however illegal the sharing. But some college software pirates have more lucrative schemes at play. That was the case at the University of South Carolina Spartanburg, where an unnamed student was caught not only pirating mp3s but selling the pirated song files to others, at a profit. This unnamed student made the one fatal mistake of copyright infringement: turning an intangible good with ill-defined real value into something old people could understand as stealing.  The university avoided a lawsuit by shutting down the virtual juke box and limiting the amount of material students could download on the campus network. Others schools promised to follow suit. 

Missouri, Spam, and Prison



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Not all digital crime on college campuses is as harmless as illegal music downloads. No it turns out some people are out to make a serious profit out of dubious net dealing.  In 2001, former students at the University of Missouri used the campus network to create a computer program which illegally procured more than eight million email addresses of college students around the country. They then sent targeted spam emails to those addresses, and reaped the profits of the goods which students purchased. Four years and four million dollars later, they found themselves facing ten year prison sentences.  If only they had waited until they were out of college, and couldn’t be typified as dangerous youngsters using everyday technology at a scale that happened to frighten grandmas everywhere.  They could have launched massive spam operations relatively scot-free

Ivy League Espionage



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It’s not just college kids committing online fraud. Sometimes universities themselves become the subject of FBI scrutiny. That was the case in 2002, when Princeton University administrators hacked into the admissions website of longtime rival Yale. Using the birthdays and social security numbers of Princeton’s college applicants, the admissions office posed as the students to log into Yale’s newly created admissions website.  What was the goal of this super-secret heist? Ironically, officials only wanted to investigate the Yale site’s security measures.  Cue a probe by the FBI and years blue-blooded Yale students finding yet another reason to feel undeservedly superior. 

Operation Phish Phry



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The FBI does more than address digital theft at dueling Ivies. Some times they actually stop real-life criminals instead of some kid who wanted to listen to the newest Phish album.  In October of 2009, the FBI concluded its largest investigation of cyber crime yet: an international identity theft scheme. The crimes began with hackers in Egypt, who obtained multiple bank account numbers and security passwords by phishing – that is to say, sent emails meant to come from financial institutions, complete with logos. When unwitting customers entered personal information, hackers in Egypt sent the information via text messages, phone calls, and online chats, to co-conspirators in the United States. The FBI collaborated with Egyptian law enforcement to arrest over a hundred people in the cheekily titled “Operation Phish Phry”. 

Google and the Spies



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In January of 2010, news broke that China had hacked sensitive information belonging to multiple U.S. based corporations, proving that China’s foreign interests go beyond the governmental. Of all the criminally web savvy nation’s corporate hacks, its infiltration of Google was the most highly publicized. Of course, they only really succeeded in napping a few e-mail account passwords but the point is–CHINA! COMMUNISM! CYBERWAR WOOOO BE AFRAID!  While Google was not terrifically forthcoming with what, precisely, was hacked, the company made headlines for its response. In light of China’s breech of its security, Google refused to continue censoring search results in the country, by rerouting its service to the country through Hong Kong, which made “Democracy”, “Tiananmen Square 1989”, and–most importantly of all–“Sex”, fully searchable in the country for the first time.

Yahoo and the Spies



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Google’s discovery that China had hacked its systems revealed breaches into other companies as well. In one such instance, Yahoo revealed to select Yahoo email users that their accounts had also been hacked. Andrew Jacobs of the New York Times had his email account settings changed so that all of his correspondence was forwarded to an unknown third party, without his knowledge. Others targeted by the Yahoo email hack included journalists, academics, and activists who write about China.  This all raises the serious cyber security question of: why the hell are so many people still using Yahoo? 

Adobe Encryption



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Though Google claimed it discovered more than thirty companies hacked by Chinese espionage, Adobe was the only company besides Yahoo to go public as a victim. Adobe Reader, an application which presents PDF documents, was exposed as vulnerable to penetration–shocking precisely no one.  Sensitive information was stolen from emails by experts in China and North Korea when users clicked maliciously encrypted PDF’s attached to emails via Adobe.  Presumably no one noticed the viruses because they just expected one of these glorified text files to freeze their computer and force a reboot.

Apple Sues Again: Psystar Edition



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When small-time Apple rival Psystar marketed PC’s with Apple’s Mac OS X operating system preinstalled, Apple cried foul play. In order to implement the system, Psystar bypassed Apple’s security measures designed to prevent the operating system from being copied onto unauthorized computers. Last year, courts confirmed that the operating system rightfully belonged to Apple, ordering Psystar to stop the process and pay restitution. Apple’s history of pursuing litigation to stop corporate digital theft continues.  Today, as with Franklin Spellers, Apple is known for all things digital and Psystar is remembered only for having one bitchin-awesome name.

Meet Stuxnet



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In what may be the most unnerving case of digital theft, computer security experts have no idea what is being stolen. Meet Stuxnet. Like typical malicious software, or malware, Stuxnet secretly infiltrates computers, copies their information, and sends it back to a central coordinate – in the case of Stuxnet, a central system that experts cannot source. The EU released a statement last week calling Stuxnet “a paradigm shift” in cyber weaponry. Unlike typical malware, Stuxnet has infiltrated millions of computers in under six months.  For months, cyber security officials wrung their hands, wondering what Stuxnet was truly capable of.  It was briefly forgotten, before it became clear that it was specifically designed to target Iranian nuclear centrifuges and most likely originated in Israel, officially making it the only truly scary cyber attack on this list. 

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