National security

With cyber-crime on the rise, we look at how governments can protect their e-services and market that protection.

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By  Brid-Aine Conway Published  October 21, 2007

Crime is as old as humankind itself - for as long as there has been society, there has been crime, and those who try to prevent it struggle to keep up with its many variations. It should come as no surprise then, that the information society has produced its own special brand of crime - cyber-crime - the sophisticated theft of information, money and even identity without ever needing to meet the intended victim face-to-face.

Cyber-crime is most often linked with the finance industry, for obvious reasons, and with the theft of financial data from online retailers. But another sector that is coming to be recognised as a place to access valuable information is within e-government structures.

As eGovernment becomes more pervasive, the damage done by cyber-crime does becomes much more real and serious.

"To put it in very plain terms, why do the bad guys hit banks? Because that's where the money is. So if we all agree on that and then take the view of the digital world, is there money in the information society? Yes, there is. Well, that's where the criminals will go then. It's as simple as that. And the more money there is in the information society, the more criminals will try to move in that direction," says Ilias Chantzos, manager of government relations and public affairs EMEA for Symantec.

And there is a lot of money in cyber-crime. Information is worth money to enterprises because knowledge of customers, production methods, patents and so on can be enough for a cyber-criminal to earn millions through extortion.

But personal information is also stored online. Identity theft is a new form of crime that has received much publicity in the media and that is well facilitated by the internet, as well as the theft of credit card information through email, from online banking and from online retailers. All of this publicity can make people reluctant to take advantage of the simplicity and ease of online services, though the provision of these services is practically a must for the financial and retail industries and is fast approaching necessity for the government sector.

E-government is seen by many in the West as a way of reconnecting with disillusioned voters, of bringing citizens back in touch with their governments and providing forums for contact and discussion, through blogs and political websites.

More than this, however, e-government is a way to provide the services that a government needs to provide in a manner that is simple and easy, both for the population and for the government. Here in the Middle East, e-government services are growing at a rate that's comparable with the booming economy, with countries such as Bahrain, the UAE and Saudi Arabia moving more and more of their services online.

In the government sector, e-services could bring an unparalleled upgrade to the efficiency and cost-effectiveness of services, purely because the government is required to provide so many diverse functions to what is usually a very large number of people. While the finance industry matches the government sector in terms of privacy requirements and complexity of online services, it is usually not required to handle the sheer volume of traffic that government services must.

E-government opens up an entirely new avenue of information access to cyber-criminals. In an over-arching e-government structure, data such as medical records, financial data and personal information for the provision of identification documents could be stored online and access to such information could enable extortion, e-fraud or identity theft. And e-governments are all too aware of the risks associated with their services and the need to adequately protect them.

"As the usage of IT and eGovernment becomes ever more pervasive, the damage that can be done by cyber-crimes also becomes much more real and serious. The concerns in the Kingdom are no different than the rest of the world and are mainly regarding the data security and privacy of individuals, defacing of government websites, paralyzing the government's services delivery network and so on. However, concrete steps have already been undertaken and others are also planned," says Mohammed Ali Al Qaed, CEO of the Kingdom of Bahrain's e-government agency.

Security specialists see the vast store of personal information on the internet as a veritable treasure trove for cyber-criminals.

"All over the world e-government sites are some of the prime targets for cyber-crime, either for fame or practically, it's the best thing for extortion. Once you have access to that data, you can get into personal records, financial records, medical records, there's just no end to it," says Faisal Khan, senior security consultant at McAfee.

John Eisen, VP of production management for fusion middleware at Oracle, believes that as online services begin to provide more value to users and providers, the risks they are exposed to will grow too. Oracle has been involved in e-government projects in Dubai, Ras al Khaimah and Egypt and Eisen feels that despite the risks, service providers need to look at the advantages.

"There's no doubt that the internet as well as ubiquitous networks in general as a channel for delivery of services are here to stay and are increasing in penetration and value every day. As a result of that, the levels of risk that they are subjected to are increasing exponentially. I would say though, that I genuinely believe the opportunities that this delivery channel represents significantly outweigh the risk," he says.

Juniper's regional director, Mohamad Abdul Malak, agrees: "Sometimes people think when they apply to build an e-government, they're exposing themselves to more attacks on more services. At the same time, you need to take into consideration that there is also an opportunity to know more about what's going on within government in terms of fraud and access and attack and cyber-crime. It has pros and cons, but at the end of the day, IT or using e-government is a necessity in the modern world."

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