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ABC 7.30 - Cybercrime wave hits businesses worldwide

International News

Thursday, May 05, 2011
THE image of a tsunami bearing down on the Japanese mainland was of biblical proportions.

It was also, to use Twitter terminology, an "epic #fail''.

It was fake.

It was five minutes of misspent time on Photoshop, a few Twitter and Facebook friends and their you have it: A horrific image of the Japanese tsunami being circulated among millions of people from distressed relatives to international news outlets.

This week Twitter - which has been used to broadcast everything from desperate messages of Egyptian revolutionaries to celebrity death tweets claiming the likes of Johnny Depp and Myley Cyrus had, wrongly, popped their clogs - turned five years old.

And although the web has made it possible for everyone to become their own publisher, it is the explosive growth of the micro blog along with social media behemoth Facebook which has pushed that self-published content to the four corners of the earth seemingly instantaneously.

Therein lies the problem, RMIT School of Business IT and Logistics' lecturer John Lenarcic said this week.

"I guess that's the biggest problem,'' Dr Lenarcic says from his university office in Melbourne.

"How do we know what we are seeing or reading is authentic?''

However, fake photos and misreported news that goes viral on the internet is as much a problem with the people that view the content as those that create it, Dr Lenarcic asserts.

"People have been telling stories for a long time,'' he says.

"You go to the pub or sit by the camp fire and that latent creativity would kick in.

"You go to the pub to hang out, it's not home or work so people have called it a 'third place' and so your expectations are different.

"But is Facebook or Twitter a third place?

"I don't think we have been able to figure that out yet.''

Confusing the problem even further, Dr Lenarcic says that humans have built up a lot of value around the written word - if we read it in the book or the newspaper then it must be true because editors and publishers have worked to verify the report or picture as being real.

And, Dr Lenarcic says, that "trust what is published'' mentality has transferred across to the internet despite the majority of content not being scrutinised in the same way.

University of Sydney digital cultures lecturer Chris Chesher said that bloggers, Twitter users and other "netizens'' were pushing out vast amounts of content and quickly and there was tension between them and traditional news outlets who had moved into the online space.

"Traditional news outlets are rushing to keep up with people on the internet,'' Dr Chesher says in light of news outlets claiming the Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi's son was killed this week.

"But the traditional media needs to slow down and verify their content.

"So there is the tension between bloggers and traditional media - at the moment they are both competing on speed but the internet will always win that competition.''

It's misplaced trust.

Dr Lenarcic compares the internet to America's Wild West.

"What we are in at the moment is a new frontier,'' he says.

"The internet is lawless like the Wild West was.''

And it's not just the virtual version of cattle thieves' tall stories told around the camp fire, the doctored photos and misinformed social media updates, which hark back to those lawless days.

Scam hunter Ken Gamble, a veteran private investigator who now works for the Internet Fraud Watchdog, deals in the more serious hoax content.

"[The internet] is a breeding ground for fake and fictitious material,'' Mr Gamble says.

"Traditionally, you had to send your story to the newspaper before it was published.

"You had to reveal your identity, now you don't need to do either.''

The inability to pin an identity to a piece of content means scammers have turned the internet into a fraudster's playground, Mr Gamble says.

Dr Lenarcic agrees that fraudulent activity is concerning, but anonymity shouldn't be regarded as all bad.

"Anonymity reminds me of the super hero and super villain characters - all of them have masks and alter egos,'' Dr Lenarcic explains.

"Look at Wikipedia, it's all anonymous.

"These entries can be positive or negative and can be hijacked at any time.

"But Wikipedia says it is self correcting - an anonymous 'villain' will make an entry which is wrong and someone, a `hero', will come along and correct it.''

It's illustrative of what Dr Lenarcic and many other internet commentators including American author Clay Shirky refer to as a type of web ethics.

That web ethics has often been preached in open source software communities where people who use the free software have an obligation to fix any bugs they find.

"You are expected to fix the bug, not just complain about the software having a bug,'' Dr Lenarcic says.

"It's the same in the real world - if you see a cigarette butt on the ground then you could do the community thing and put it in the bin or you could just stand there and complain about it.''

The university lecturer argues the same goes for errant content, there is no use complaining about it when everyone with an internet connect has the ability to correct it.

Sydney-based Dr Chesher explains that, like the real world, different parts of the internet have different ethics.

"It's not one place so just like there are school yard ethics and other types of ethics governing different places will live in, the internet is much the same,'' he says.

"And because of that I think ethics has to be sorted out at the coalface.''

Dr Lenarcic says Dr Tim Berners-Lee, who is credited as one of the founders of the internet, has been pushing for the creation of web sciences as a academic course in the same way natural and social sciences are being taught.

The study would focus on social anomalies on the web as well as looking at information ethics.

"Every time there is a new technology there is a set of ethics that pop up around it,'' Dr Lenarcic says.

"I say to my students that the Catholic church have 'new sins' because of technology.

"The church has listed drink driving as a mortal sin but that wouldn't have existed before the automobile was invented.''

Some of the formative ethics are seemlingly simple - and lift a lot from the bricks and mortar world.

"You have to have a moral imagination,'' Dr Lenarcic says.

"You have to ask yourself, 'How would I feel if I had loved ones in Japan and I saw a doctored photo of a tsunami?'

"It's goes back to the 'Do unto others as other do unto you'.''

It's Biblical ethics judging a faked act of god image

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