In through the back door

A host of well-armed hackers are lining up to take advantage of your computer. Bill Thompson describ

If the internet is a virtual city, then getting a home broadband connection is the equivalent of jumping into an unlicensed minicab and asking to be taken to the red light district. Once you're plugged into the network, you're a target for fraudsters, con artists, pornographers, hackers, phishers and zombies. Worms, viruses, Trojan horses, spyware, adware and all sorts of other "malware" - the generic term for programs that do bad things - will be knocking at your virtual door.

Some of the nasties will probably get in, leaving your computer open to hackers who want to turn it into a "zombie" and use it to attack a corporate website, or software pirates who want to store their illegally acquired "warez" on your hard drive. Start surfing and you'll come across websites with obscene pictures, unauthorised music or movies and dodgy businesses of every variety. You can gamble at implausible odds, buy shares in companies that don't exist and watch surprisingly athletic young people indulge in every describable form of sexual contact.

Join an online network such as Friendster or Orkut and you'll have a bunch of weirdos - the friends of friends of friends you never realised you knew - offering to sleep with you, sell you dodgy drugs or kill you and eat any selected part of your anatomy. And if you're foolish enough to install any of the popular file-sharing programs such as Kazaa or Morpheus, then child abusers will be hoarding their illegal images on your hard drive. Not knowing how they did it won't help you when you're up before the judge.

But is any of this the internet's fault? And does having a broadband connection contribute to the criminal use of the net, or would it happen anyway? After all, we had porn sites, e-mail scams and viruses back in the days when we drooled over far slower connections.

Broadband clearly makes a difference. While most of the criminal activity associated with a broadband connection could be carried out over a dial-up link, the whole thing would be neither as slick nor as straightforward. For once, the advertising campaigns have got it right: having a fast, always-on internet connection really does make life a lot simpler - for the online criminal.

Instead of having to wait for the few minutes in the evening when Auntie Maud logs on to AOL to pick up her e-mail, a worm or virus can sneak on to her hard drive during the hours her PC is turned on so she can listen to her favourite ballads on an online radio station. And the secret stash of hardcore porn that is being stored on her hard drive, visible only to the other users of the peer-to-peer network that has taken over her computer, can be downloaded in a matter of seconds rather than taking hours and slowing down her surfing.

Broadband users aren't defenceless. Anyone with a broadband connection will have a firewall and up-to-date anti-virus software (and if you don't have both of these essentials then stop reading now and go get them - you never know what's been installing itself on your computer while you've been reading this). And few people are gullible enough to fall for a business proposition from Mr Achabe in Nigeria.

But broadband connections do more than expose innocent net users to the criminal world. Those same superfast links can provide the less scrupulous with an unparalleled opportunity for career development, and it is probably here that broadband is making a real difference to the amount of online crime.

Sending out a million spam e-mails using a dial-up connection is time-consuming and potentially expensive. Doing the same over broadband is easy, and a lot of the growth in spam can be traced back to thousands of amateur e-mailers sitting at the end of an AOL broadband connection. All those badly written offers to get in at the ground floor of a multi-level marketing programme that is guaranteed to enhance your sexual pleasure are part of the hidden cost of broadband.

A low-grade fraudster might have little success skimming credit cards in a restaurant, but give them a web-authoring tool, a little time and a CD containing millions of e-mail addresses, and they'll be phishing like a pro in no time.

Earlier this year, a 21-year-old man from Lytham St Annes, in Lancashire, was arrested after he made a rather crude copy of the Smile bank website and tried to persuade customers to give him their account details. At the time of the arrest, Detective Chief Superintendent Les Hynds, head of Britain's National Hi-Tech Crime Unit, said: "The message is clear. Do not do this at home, we will find you." But in fact the message was more "If you are stupid, we will find you", and many other talented hackers and fraudsters may not be so easily caught.

There are some very useful tools out there to allow them to sit in the comfort of their own home and find thousands of computers to crack, some of which might have sensitive information or bank account details on them. It's all much nicer than heading out on a cold dark night with a jemmy.

Serious internet fraud is still relatively rare, but white-collar crime has moved online faster than a packet of new pens disappears from a stationery cupboard. Unlicensed music files are being snatched from the net, and broadband makes it possible. And while Napster demonstrated to the world just how easy it was to copy music from a CD, load it on to your computer and share it with your ten million closest friends, faster connections allow today's downloaders to go for bigger fish: movies.

Simone lives in Cambridge, and recently bought herself a new computer and a stack of blank DVDs just so she could download the latest movies and make copies for her friends. Most of them are early versions of pre-release DVDs, stolen by someone in the supply chain and placed online for anyone to see. Occasionally there will be a new release movie, often filmed surreptitiously at a screening and of poorer quality.

Simone knows why she's doing this: "It's cheap, I can show off to my friends, and it's cool," she admits, quite happy to be a cybercriminal. But without broadband at home, she'd find it impossible, as downloading a movie would take days instead of a few hours.

It's easy to blame the net for society's ills, but there were no car thieves in 1804 for the good reason that the car hadn't been invented, just as there were no computer viruses in 1904. Each age must learn to live with the crimes that new technologies make possible. Sadly, we haven't quite got used to the sheer creativity of the online criminals who are at this very moment rummaging through our hard drives in search of online bank accounts to pilfer.

Bill Thompson (www.andfinally.com) is a research associate with the iSociety project.

He writes weekly for BBC News Online and is an external editor at www.opendemocracy.net

GLOSSARY

The net is a strange place, full of words that don't mean what you think they do, or were invented to confuse . . .

adware a program that puts adverts on your screen outside your control

cyberspace "the space behind the screen": sci-fi writer William Gibson's term for the whole network and all the data it contains

hacker originally a dedicated programmer, now usually a malicious computer expert who breaks into other people's systems

malware a general term for any program that does something bad or unwanted

phishing putting up a fake website or sending fake e-mails that pretend to be from a bank or online shop, with the goal of stealing card numbers or account details

spyware a program that sits on your computer monitoring your activity and reporting back

Trojan (Trojan horse) a program that appears to be doing something useful but is really malicious

warez stolen software ("wares"), usually with cracked activation keys, which can be downloaded over the net

worm a program that spreads from computer to computer over the net, usually doing something nasty at the same time

zombie an internet-connected computer secretly running a program that lets a hacker control it. Often used to mount attacks on other computers