Daily Archives: 2010-01-25

How hard can it be to measure phishing?

Last Friday I went to a workshop organised by the Oxford Internet Institute on “Mapping and Measuring Cybercrime“. The attendees represented many disciplines from lawyers, through ePolicy, to serving police officers and an ex Government minister. Much of the discussion related to the difficulty of saying precisely what is or is not “cybercrime“, and what might be meant by mapping or measuring it.

The position paper I submitted (one more of the extensive Moore/Clayton canon on phishing) took a step back (though of course we intend to be a step forward), in that it looked at the very rich datasets that we have for phishing and asked whether this meant that we could usefully map or measure that particular criminal speciality?

In practice, we believe, bias in the data and the bias of those who are interpret it means that considerable care is needed to understand what all the data actually means. We give an example from our own work of how failing to understand the bias meant that we initially misunderstood the data, and how various intentional distortions arise because of the self-interest of those who collect the data.

Extrapolating, this all means that getting better data on other types of cybercrime may not prove to be quite as useful as might initially be thought.

As ever, reading the whole paper (it’s only 4 sides!) is highly recommended, but to give a flavour of the problem we’re drawing attention to:

If a phishing gang host their webpages on a thousand fraudulent domains, using fifty stolen credit cards to purchase them from a dozen registrars, and then transfer money out of a hundred customer accounts leading to a monetary loss in six cases: is that a 1000 crimes, or 50, or 12, or 100 or 6 ?

The phishing website removal companies would say that there were 1000 incidents because they need to get 1000 domains suspended. The credit card companies would say there were 50 incidents because 50 cardholders ought to have money reimbursed. Equally they would have 12 registrars to “charge back” because they had accepted fraudulent registrations (there might have been any number of actual credit card money transfer events between 12 and 1000 depending whether the domains were purchased in bulk). The banks will doubtless see the criminality as 100 unauthorised transfers of money out of their customer accounts; but if they claw back almost all of the cash (because it remains within the mainstream banking system) then the six-monthly Financial Fraud Action UK (formerly APACS) report will merely include the monetary losses from the 6 successful thefts.

Clearly, what you count depends on who you are — but crucially, in a world where resources are deployed to meet measurement targets (and your job is at risk if you miss them), deciding what to measure will bias your decisions on what you actually do and hence how effective you are at defeating the criminals.