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A history of cybercrime

As computer systems have now become integral to the daily functioning of businesses, organizations, governments, and individuals we have learned to put a tremendous amount of trust in these systems. As a result, we have placed incredibly important and valuable information on them. History has shown, that things of value will always be a target for a criminal. Cybercrime is no different. As people flood their personal computers, phones, and so on with valuable data, they put a target on that information for the criminal to aim for, in order to gain some form of profit from the activity.

In the past, in order for a criminal to gain access to an individual’s valuables, they would have to conduct a robbery in some shape or form. In the case of data theft, the criminal would need to break into a building, sifting through files looking

for the information of greatest value and profit. In our modern world, the criminal can attack their victims from a distance, and due to the nature of the internet, these acts would most likely never meet retribution.

Cybercrime in the 70s and 80s

In the 70s, we saw criminals taking advantage of the tone system used on phone networks. The attack was called phreaking, where the attacker reverse-engineered the tones used by the telephone companies to make long distance calls.

In 1988, the first computer worm made its debut on the internet and caused a great deal of destruction to organizations. This first worm was called the Morris worm, after its creator Robert Morris. While this worm was not originally intended to be malicious it still caused a great deal of damage. The U.S. Government Accountability Office in 1980 estimated that the damage could have been as high as $10,000,000.00.

1989 brought us the first known ransomware attack, which targeted the healthcare industry. Ransomware is a type of malicious software that locks a user’s data, until a small ransom is paid, which will result in the issuance of a cryptographic unlock key. In this attack, an evolutionary biologist named Joseph Popp distributed 20,000 floppy disks across 90 countries, and claimed the disk contained software that could be used to analyze an individual’s risk factors for contracting the AIDS virus. The disk however contained a malware program that when executed, displayed a message requiring the user to pay for a software license. Ransomware attacks have evolved greatly over the years with the healthcare field still being a very large target.

The birth of the web and a new dawn for cybercrime

The 90s brought the web browser and email to the masses, which meant new tools for cybercriminals to exploit. This allowed the cybercriminal to greatly expand their reach. Up till this time, the cybercriminal needed to initiate a physical transaction, such as providing a floppy disk. Now cybercriminals could transmit virus code over the internet in these new, highly vulnerable web browsers. Cybercriminals took what they had learned previously and modified it to operate over the internet, with devastating results. Cybercriminals were also able to reach out and con people from a distance with phishing attacks. No longer was it necessary to engage with individuals directly. You could attempt to trick millions of users simultaneously. Even if only a small percentage of people took the bait you stood to make a lot of money as a cybercriminal.

The 2000s brought us social media and saw the rise of identity theft. A bullseye was painted for cybercriminals with the creation of databases containing millions of users’ personal identifiable information (PII), making identity theft the new financial piggy bank for criminal organizations around the world.

This information coupled with a lack of cybersecurity awareness from the general public allowed cybercriminals to commit all types of financial fraud such as opening bank accounts and credit cards in the name of others.

Cybercrime in a fast-paced technology landscape

Today we see that cybercriminal activity has only gotten worse. As computer systems have gotten faster and more complex we see that the cybercriminal

has become more sophisticated and harder to catch. Today we have botnets, which are a network of private computers that are infected with malicious software and allow the criminal element to control millions of infected computer systems across the globe. These botnets allow the criminal element to overload organizational networks and hide the origin of the criminals:

  • We see constant ransomware attacks across all sectors of the economy
  • People are constantly on the lookout for identity theft and financial fraud
  • Continuous news reports regarding the latest point of sale attack against major retailers and hospitality organizations

This is an extract from Information Security Handbook by Darren Death. Follow Darren on Twitter: @DarrenDeathInformation security handbook cover


  1. A nice beginning, but frankly not a very complete or up to date look at cyber crime.
    Among other things: completely misses out on DDoS attacks, social media/doxxing/revenge porn attacks, digital advertising fraud, and much more.
    Contact me if you want a more real world understanding of what is going on.


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