Protecting Civilians From Cyber Crime

The Iraqi Ministry of Interior Targets Terrorists, Drug Traffickers and Extortionists Who Operate Online

Criminals have always found ways to exploit new technologies, and the internet is no exception. By now, most computer users are familiar with such novel terms as phishing, spoofing and spamming. And while the terminology may be new, the ultimate goals of cyber crime are ancient — they include theft, coercion and extortion. Governments and private cyber security firms have made steady but uneven progress since the advent of cyberspace, combating this latest trend in criminal activity. Like modern-day Sherlock Holmes, cyber security professionals use an array of tools and tradecraft to track cyber criminals. Unipath interviewed Maj. Gen. Saad Maan, director of public relations for the Iraqi Ministry of Interior, who spoke about the major achievements and challenges facing security services tracking cyber crime.

Unipath: What makes Iraq vulnerable to cyber crime? 

Maj. Gen. Saad Maan: Typically, criminals employ modern technology and innovations that mankind has developed to serve humanity to carry out their own crimes. Looking back, we find that there are dual uses for every tool or machine that has been created by man since the beginning of time: good uses and evil uses. This includes technologies such as axes, knives, guns, engines and atomic energy. The advances brought about by the digital age are no exception. The damage caused by technological advancement is commensurate with the extent to which the technology is employed. Unfortunately, before 2003, Iraq was shut off from the world as a result of international sanctions imposed by the United Nations Security Council on the former regime and our preoccupation with counterterrorism thereafter, in addition to other problems. All of these reasons have prevented us from employing the latest digital technology in the energy, manufacturing, agricultural, commercial and even security sectors. For these reasons, cyber criminals have found an environment vulnerable to their deception, extortion, intimidation, and other virtual crimes stemming from the misuse of social media channels. 

Unipath: What challenges do security personnel face in going after these types of criminals?

Maj. Gen. Saad Maan: The biggest challenge is that we don’t have a special law addressing cyber crime, so we have been forced to resort to the old penal code which has, in some cases, led to exploitation of the absence of such a law to deter cyber crime.

Despite the prevalence of these crimes all over the world and the enactment of special laws to deter them, no law has been enacted in Iraq to deter or reduce cyber crime. This is a significant challenge for security personnel, and we look forward to the passage of a law that gives the judiciary powers to sentence perpetrators of this type of crime and security personnel the legal authority to go after and arrest cyber criminals. 

As an alternative and in the absence of deterrent legislation, we currently base prosecution of such offenses on legal articles of the 1969 Penal Code. However, as its title indicates, these laws were enacted in 1969, and although amended since then, most predate the digital age and include no criminal penalties for cyber crimes. This has limited the power of lawyers and judges to handle these modern crimes. The reinterpretation of old legal material in trials for this type of offense usually results in reduced penalties or even acquittal because the statutory passages specify direct threats rather than electronic extortion. If all the forensic evidence of the offense is confirmed, the accused may be sentenced to prison for no more than seven years.

Unipath: Describe the nature of these crimes. 

Maj. Gen. Saad Maan: A small proportion of these crimes are committed as revenge because of a failed relationship or business partnership that ended in some kind of problem. In these cases the perpetrator knows the victim, knows his or her address, phone number and details and uses these for extortion. These cases are limited and easy. But a greater portion of these crimes are committed by experienced criminals or organized gangs for extortion. This is the most serious and common type. For example, we received a complaint from a girl who was the victim of blackmail, so we tracked down the suspect with the cooperation of Baghdad Police Command and intelligence from the Ministry of Interior, arrested him, and after an examination of his cellphone by technicians at the Forensic Evidence Unit, we found more than 60 crimes of blackmail and photos of minor girls. 

Unipath: How broad is the problem of cyber crime?

Maj. Gen. Saad Maan: Electronic extortion is an important topic of concern for all security personnel. Some may think that the work of the Ministry of the Interior is limited to the pursuit and arrest of criminals after the crime has occurred, but they would be wrong. The ministry plays an important role in community policing. This entails preventing crimes, not just tracking down criminals after they have committed crimes. Through our field experience, our presence in the community and the activities of ministry personnel, in addition to the reports we receive, we are noticing that cyber crime is the vessel within which other crimes are carried out. If we talk about murder, threats, drugs trafficking and other crimes, we see that cyber crime plays a big role in all of them because the internet has made it easier for criminals to coordinate remotely and given them the ability to conceal their identities by opening accounts with fake names from different devices and sites. 

Outside of the numbers, the specialized departments of the Ministry of the Interior have been able to solve many cases of cyber extortion, apprehend criminals and bring them to justice via cyber crime departments, information technology departments and the fruitful cooperation of citizens. 

Unipath: What is the connection between the perpetrators of this type of crime and terrorist groups?

Maj. Gen. Saad Maan: When it comes to cyber crime, there are countries and organizations that support subversive activities as well as espionage to advance their interests or damage their enemies. There are certainly terrorist activities in cyberspace for the purpose of recruitment, financing and extortion. Cyber crime is a new type of modern crime (so to speak) in which information technology and digital advances have been used across the vast array of internet services. Like other criminals, terrorists use social media to ensnare their ignorant and ill-informed victims in a variety of ways. They use cyber crime in general and extortion in particular to trap their recruits with promises of a better future, promises that turn out to be false.

The goals of these two types of crimes — terrorist crimes and crimes of extortion — differ. But in the eyes of the law, a criminal is any person who commits a crime for individual or collective gain at the expense of larger society, whether for psychological, economic or ideological motives, in violation of man-made, customary or divine laws. This has united the ranks of various security forces to confront crime of any kind, form or motive.

Unipath: If a victim reports a crime, how is individual privacy respected and the victim’s identity protected?

Maj. Gen. Saad Maan: Of course, the identities of victims remain confidential. We in the Ministry of the Interior want the victim to come forward and report his or her experiences with this crime with confidence. In our media leaflets on this subject and over hotlines, we always emphasize the importance of maintaining confidentiality and provide assurances to the victim in this regard.

The Ministry of Interior’s Public Relations and Media Department plays a large and important role in tackling cyber crime in general and crimes of extortion in particular following the launch of the #bintunatuhimuna (our daughter matters to us) campaign, which has taken on a prominent role in the media to educate all sections of society, especially our teenage girls who are going through a difficult stage of their lives. They need to be aware of the danger of falling victim to trafficking, and we need to expose all manner of fraud in this field and encourage victims to quickly notify the relevant departments of the Ministry of Interior to report perpetrators.

Unipath: Describe the programs to protect teenagers.

Maj. Gen. Saad Maan: Three years ago, we started a community outreach campaign to protect society against electronic blackmail. We tweeted out the hashtag #bintunatuhimuna and the Supreme Judicial Council took a serious stand against this issue. The challenge we face with threats is that the law is only enforced if a complaint is filed by the victim; otherwise the case is closed. However, the head of the Supreme Judicial Council supported a deeper investigation and, on the grounds of public rights, the offender can be held accountable even in the absence of a complaint against him by the victim. This marked a turning point in the prosecution of cyber crime, resulting in a significant reduction in cyber extortion offenses. The men of the Anti-Crime Directorate set up the 533 hotline and, as a result of the efforts of the directorate’s skilled officers, dozens of extortionists, including organized cyber crime groups, were arrested.

Unipath: Which cyber crime cases are the most difficult for security services?

Maj. Gen. Saad Maan: It’s clear that the effort to catch cyber criminals and cyber extortionists is generally quite significant since the perpetrator is invisible, uses several different methods and is constantly developing skills to avoid detection by security forces. In contrast, our security forces are also developing skills and tactics to elevate their technical staff to the point where they can effectively confront cyber criminals and keep up with or exceed their skills and tricks. You can imagine the efforts made to prepare, direct and bolster the capabilities of the security and intelligence officials working in this field. There is without a doubt joint cooperation between our security institutions to exchange expertise and compare information, which benefits the rule of law and combating criminals.

Unipath: How are electronic monitoring teams selected and what are their qualifications?

Maj. Gen. Saad Maan: The Electronic Crimes Department of the Ministry of Interior’s Federal Intelligence and Investigation Agency, along with other relevant departments, are careful to establish special controls, conditions and qualifications for security officers and civil servants; foremost among them is scientific and professional specialization in computer science and information technology. They also need knowledge of science-based intelligence and security work, in addition to special skills in the field of investigations. On the other hand, we are keen to provide intensive courses to enhance and upgrade capabilities that help them succeed in their work. We include them in internal and external courses to enhance their skills and keep them abreast of global developments, especially in cyber crime.

Unipath: What are the characteristics of a cyber criminal in Iraq?

Maj. Gen. Saad Maan: It is not possible to specify the precise characteristics of cyber criminals because their methods are constantly evolving and vary according to their intentions and objectives. Our relevant institutions have arrested many of these people and their ages, educational qualifications and social conditions have varied, bearing in mind that adolescents are the most common perpetrators of cyber crimes for reasons of financial or sexual blackmail or to force their victims to commit broader crimes such as drug violations.

Unipath: What advice do you have for citizens subjected to electronic extortion?

Maj. Gen. Saad Maan: I stress the importance of promptly informing the security authorities in the Ministry of Interior and the other relevant agencies to prevent further harm they could suffer if they continue to cooperate with blackmailers or fail to come to the Ministry of Interior. Keeping quiet about extortion will lead the victim into dangerous pitfalls and, as a result, to a tragic end. That is why the victim should contact the relevant security authorities, because someone who blackmails you once will come back and blackmail you again. You should be in close contact with the security forces and bear in mind the importance of time as a factor. Criminals believe that they are safe from security personnel and that the law cannot reach them. Here I would like to emphasize that there is a very large technical effort within the Ministry of Interior’s Directorate of Intelligence that enables us to hunt down cyber criminals and anyone who misuses the internet or social media channels. I would also like to clarify that the door of our department is always open to all our brothers and sisters who are subject to these crimes.  

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