The COVID-19 pandemic has intensified cybercrime

This October, Europol published its 2020 cybercrime report, with updates on the latest trends and the current impact of cybercrime within the EU and beyond.

The global COVID-19 pandemic that hit every corner of the world forced us to reimagine our societies and reinvent the way we work and live. During the lockdown, we turned to the internet for a sense of normality: shopping, working and learning online at a scale never seen before. And cybercriminals took advantage of it to commit many different types of crimes.

Phishing remains an effective threat. Criminals use innovative methods to increase the volume and sophistication of their attacks. Criminals quickly exploited the pandemic to attack vulnerable people; phishing, online scams and the spread of fake news became an ideal strategy for cybercriminals seeking to sell items they claim will prevent or cure COVID-19.

Encryption continues to be a clear feature of an increasing number of services and tools. One of the main challenges for law enforcement is how to access and gather relevant data for criminal investigations.

Ransomware attacks have become more sophisticated, targeting specific organisations in the public and private sector through victim reconnaissance. While the COVID-19 pandemic has triggered an increase in cybercrime, ransomware attacks were targeting the healthcare industry long before the crisis. Moreover, criminals have included another layer to their ransomware attacks by threatening to auction off the comprised data, increasing the pressure on the victims to pay the ransom.

The main threats related to online child abuse exploitation have remained stable in recent years; however, the detection of online child sexual abuse material saw a sharp spike at the peak of the COVID-19 crisis. Offenders keep using a number of ways to hide this horrifying crime, such as P2P networks and encrypted communications applications.

Livestreaming of child abuse continues to increase, becoming even more popular than usual during the COVID-19 crisis when travel restrictions prevented offenders from physically abusing children. In some cases, video chat applications in payment systems are used, which becomes one of the key challenges for law enforcement as this material is not recorded.

SIM swapping, which allows perpetrators to take over accounts, is one of the new trends this year. Criminals fraudulently swap or port victims’ SIMs to one in the criminals’ possession in order to intercept the one-time password step of the authentication process.

In 2019 and early 2020, there was a high level of volatility on the dark web. The lifecycle of dark web marketplaces has shortened, and there is no clear dominant market that has risen over the past year. Tor remains the preferred infrastructure; however, criminals have started to use other privacy-focused, decentralised marketplace platforms to sell their illegal goods. Although this is not a new phenomenon, these sorts of platforms have started to increase over the last year.

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Fluctuating improvements to public safety in Honduras

Honduras has reported a decrease in criminal victimisation between 2014 and 2018. However, 13 out of every 100 Hondurans claim to have been the victim of a crime in 2018.

Despite the data, public safety is still one of the country’s main problems. Nevertheless, Hondurans believe it has become less of an issue in the last five years. Along these lines, 43 out of every 100 Hondurans considered public safety to be the main problem faced by the country during 2018.

A slightly higher percentage of men (13.4%) than women (12.1%) were victims of a crime in 2018.

The retrospective figures for homicidal violence in Honduras between 2013 and 2018 show a downward trend with a 36-point drop in the homicide rate per 100,000 inhabitants.

Quantitatively, the section of the population most affected by homicides during this period were men between 18 and 29 years of age. In 2018 specifically, this segment of the population accounted for 4 out of every 10 homicides.

Unfortunately, in 2018 the total number of recorded incidents increased by 22% compared to 2017. The figures rose from 31,612 crimes in 2017, to 39,463 in 2018. The indicators to experience a decrease were homicides (-3%), sexual offences (-0.5%), child abuse (-50%), injuries (-16%) and kidnappings (-13%). Property crimes were among the indicators to experience an increase, rising by 52% compared to 2017.

Another concerning figure in the section on property crimes is the sharp increase in extortion, which has doubled since 2015. It should also be noted that 72% of all crime reports were concentrated in just four municipalities.

The rate of violent deaths has continued to fall, decreasing by 46.5% 2018 compared to 2013. During this same period, the homicide rate in Latin America as a whole decreased by 7.7%. Therefore, despite the continued slowdown in the homicide rate in Honduras, the country’s figure was still twice that of the Latin American rate in 2018.

In 2018, 90% of the victims of violent deaths were men. And 41% of the victims of violent homicides were in the 15 to 29-year-old age group. Thus, the rate of violent deaths for men aged 18 to 29 years old is 3.4 times higher than the national rate of violent deaths.

Ten municipalities accounted for half of the country’s total homicides. On the other hand, 41 municipalities did not report any homicides during 2018.

With regard to sexual offences, in 2018, two out of three victims of sexual crimes were women under the age of 30. And 83% of reported sex crimes had female victims.

In domestic violence, eight out of ten victims were women aged 15 to 39. Similarly, 71% of domestic violence reports involved women between the ages of 15 and 39. Overall, 9 out of every 10 victims of domestic violence were women.

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Representatives of hundreds of cities around the world call for halving violence by 2030

The Executive Committee of the Global Parliament of Mayors (GPM) will deliver an international resolution to accelerate efforts to halve violence by 2030 to the Secretary-General of the United Nations. The GPM, together with Peace in Our Cities, launched this resolution in June 2020. It has been signed by more than 60 cities together with city networks representing over 1,500 cities and metropolitan areas.

GPM Mayor Marvin Rees handed-over the resolution at the UN International Day of Peace “Peace One Day”, a one-day gathering of global human rights champions to promote peace and violence reduction. The GPM and Peace in Our Cities are working with Pathfinders, a coalition of 36 national governments and 100 non-governmental partners, to accelerate action and investment in peace, justice and inclusion worldwide.

The global challenge of violence demands a global response. While national governments are key to preventing conflict, fighting crime and reducing domestic violence, cities are even more central players when it comes to preventing and reducing violence.

The resolution is the result of the first time that cities from around the world have come together to form a common position on violence prevention and reduction. Alongside the GPM and Peace In Our Cities is the European Forum for Urban Security (EFUS), the African Forum for Urban Security (AFUS), the Mayors Migration Council (MMC), Strong Cities Network (SCN) and the US Conference of Mayors (USCM).

The COVID-19 pandemic is contributing to devastating social, economic and political consequences around the world. It is also increasing the risk of organised and interpersonal violence in upper, middle and low-income settings alike. Women and children, in particular, are experiencing a greater risk of violence, especially at home and online, as are the most vulnerable, including displaced people and those living in conflict-affected areas. The threat of criminal violence is also rising, as is the spectre of social and political unrest. These challenges are faced most acutely in cities.

The resolution commits city leaders to significantly reduce all forms of lethal violence in cities, invest in evidence-based solutions, work in partnerships with national and international organisations, focus on the most vulnerable communities, empower survivors and young people, break intergenerational cycles of violence, and tackle digital extremism.

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Public safety in Guatemala continued to improve in 2019

The data for 2010-2019 was compiled from figures provided by the Guatemalan National Civil Police (PNC) and formalised by the Guatemalan National Institute of Statistics (INE).

During this period, the rate of violent deaths per 100,000 inhabitants maintained the downward trend of the current decade. By the end of 2019, it reached 21.5, representing the lowest rate of the entire period and almost levelling with the Latin American average (20.1). The reduced rate exceeds the target proposed by the Government’s 2016-2020 General Policy, which was to achieve a rate of 23.5 by the end of 2019.

Since 2010, the violent death rate has been following a steady downward trend. It has fallen by about half, from 41.8 in 2010 to 21.5 in 2019, representing a drop of 20.1 points.

Almost half of the victims of violent deaths in 2019 were young people between the ages of 18 and 30. The rate of violent deaths for this age group is 41.2 per 100,000 inhabitants, almost double the national rate.

In 2019, 85 out of every 100 victims of violent deaths were men. These male deaths decreased by almost 9% compared to 2018. Female violent deaths accounted for 15.4% of all fatalities in 2019 and decreased by only 3.2% compared to 2018. The overall proportion of female victims has increased from 11.1% in 2012, to 15.4% in 2019.

There were 33.2% fewer homicides in the first four months of 2020 than in the same period last year.

The overall incidence of crimes recorded in 2019 increased by 6.9% compared to 2018. This was mainly due to an increase in incidences of extortion, which rose from 29,497 in 2018 to 31,540 in 2019. Most worrying is the fact that in 2013 extortion accounted for 15% of all crimes, while in 2019 it accounted for almost half of the total number of crimes recorded by the PNC.

Since 2013, the number of reported extortions has practically tripled, which could be a result of increased trust in institutions, improvements in reporting mechanisms or a genuine increase in the criminal act.

Nevertheless, with the exception of the aforementioned extortions, incidences of all other crimes decreased compared to the previous year. The number of injuries has historically been higher than the number of homicides, but in 2019 there were fewer injuries than reported homicides.

Women experience a higher incidence of disappearances, rapes and domestic violence than men.

In contrast, the data on robberies and thefts showed 51.1 victims per 100,000 inhabitants, of which 8 out of 10 victims were men. Furthermore, 7 out of 10 robbery victims were aged between 18 and 40 years old.

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Advances in Justice, Human Rights, and Security in Central America

Countries like El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala face enduring challenges in addressing insecurity, impunity and corruption. Policymakers need answers to determine better strategic methods of improving governance in the region.

As WOLA explains, the Central America Monitor is an ongoing project that involves collecting data on a series of qualitative and quantitative indicators in eight key areas related to security, justice and human rights.

The Monitor website offers infographics and reports that examine the measures that each country is taking to strengthen the rule of law and security.

The data collected and analysed has revealed trends and areas of concern in the region, including the following:

  • Across the region, significant advances were made in tackling corruption. However, challenges remain in updating or reforming existing legislation, and in some cases, regressive laws were adopted. The ability of the three countries to stop corruption from flourishing is an especially urgent but complicated issue amidst the COVID-19 pandemic.
  • While transparency laws and mechanisms exist across the region, some synergies prevent public officials and institutions from reporting the information diligently. For example, some of the institutions examined, specifically the security and defence ministries, are falling short in terms of making important information about how they function available to the public. In Honduras, for example, the body responsible for reviewing financial disclosures by public officials has no way of proactively determining that the information is truthful and accurate.
  • Even though Honduras and Guatemala have adopted measures aimed, in principle, at creating an enabling environment for the exercise of protecting human rights, high levels of impunity persist for crimes involving human rights violations, killings and threats against human rights defenders. Notably, in a worrying trend, in Guatemala and Honduras, criminal law is frequently abused in an attempt to prevent or halt the work of human rights defenders. In Honduras, 141 human rights defenders were killed between 2014 and 2017.
  • Specialised legislation has been adopted to help prevent, detect and combat violence and organised crime. While general homicide rates decreased, violence and insecurity remain the primary concerns for the population. In El Salvador, nine out of 10 kidnapping cases taken on by the Attorney General’s Office were archived.
  • Justice systems across the region are understaffed and facing threats that compromise their independence. These issues compromise the ability of justice systems to investigate and prosecute crimes efficiently. For example, in 2014, in Guatemala, only 2 per cent of the complaints presented to the Attorney General’s Office ended with convictions.

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Has the Government of El Salvador entered into agreements with the “maras”?

A few days ago, the Salvadoran newspaper El Faro reported that the country’s steep decline in homicides, hailed as the Government’s main achievement during Nayib Bukele’s little over a year-long leadership, was being called into question by a press investigation which claims the success can be attributed to a pact with the ‘mara’ Salvatrucha gang (MS13).

The newspaper published a report, citing official documents and statements from one of the gang’s leaders, which suggest the Government has been in negotiations with MS13 since June 2020, and that the pact would include electoral favours during the 2021 elections.

El Faro’s investigation indicates that negotiations between the Government and the “maras” include the groups’ commitment to back the current officialdom in the election next February. In return, the government has allegedly promised to repeal laws and weaken the maximum security regime in prisons if Bukele’s Nuevas Ideas party gains control of the Legislative Assembly and wins the right to choose the 84 MPs and 262 local governments.

Meanwhile, according to police data, between January the 1st and September the 2nd this year, there were 829 homicides in the country. This figure represents a reduction of approximately 56% on the 1,871 violent deaths recorded during the same period in 2019.

If this trend continues, El Salvador will close 2020 with around 1,200 homicides, representing a murder rate of 18 per 100,000 inhabitants, its lowest figure since 1994.

The “maras” have been declared a terrorist group by El Salvador’s Supreme Court. Therefore, as the evidence supporting the Government’s alleged dialogue with the group mounts and the voices denouncing these links gain credibility, the US State Department and the North-American Congress are becoming increasingly concerned.

Despite the investigative reports, El Salvador’s president, Nayib Bukele, denied his government had made a pact with the “mara” Salvatrucha (MS13) gang to reduce the number of assassinations in exchange for more beneficial custodial terms. Bukele pointed out that the same people who had previously accused the Government of violating the terrorists’ human rights were now accusing it of granting them privileges.

The president recalled the events of last April when the “maras” increased the daily average number of murders for several days. In response, the Salvadoran Government ordered the prisons to confine the “maras” to their cells 24 hours a day, fix metal plates to the bars of their cell doors to prevent them communicating with signals, and ensure gang members were mixed in their cells, regardless of whether they belonged to rival gangs.

However, according to the El Faro newspaper, the decision to mix different gang members in the same prison cell was later repealed following talks between government officials and the heads of the criminal organisations; an accusation denied by the Government.

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More cyberattacks in the first six months of 2020 than in the whole of 2019

The profound changes brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic in relation to the growth of remote working, and increasing incidences of ransomware activity have been the two main drivers behind the increase in cyberattacks.

A report by the company CrowdStrike on the recent online threat level affecting its clients revealed more intrusion attempts during the first six months of this year than during the whole of 2019.

The cybersecurity service provider’s threat investigation team blocked some 41,000 possible intrusions between the 1st of January and the 30th of June this year, compared to 35,000 for the whole of last year. Incidents of intrusions involving malicious activity by a cybercriminal during the first six months of 2020, were 154% higher than the number of similar threats identified by CrowdStrike investigators in 2019.

Predictably, one of the major factors responsible for the increased threat activity was the rapid shift to remote work in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. This change significantly expanded the potential attack surface in many organisations, space which the cybercriminals were quick to exploit.

Another contributing factor was the growing availability of ransomware as a service (RaaS) and the consequent increase in the number of users able to carry out network attacks. There was a particularly marked increase in ransomware attacks which also involved the theft of sensitive data and subsequent attempts to extort victims by threatening to make it public.

Despite all the attention that cyber threat and espionage groups have recently garnered, the vast majority of the actual attacks blocked by CrowdStrike during the first six months of this year were financially motivated. In fact, 82% of the attacks detected by the investigators fell into the category of e-crime, compared to 69% in 2019.

As has been the case for some time, organisations in the financial, technology and telecommunications sectors were more active and better protected than organisations in most other sectors. Furthermore, CrowdStrike observed a dramatic increase in intrusion activity involving manufacturing companies.

Indeed, manufacturing was, during the first half of 2020, the second most frequently targeted industry after the technology sector. According to the company, the critical nature of most manufacturing operations and the valuable intellectual property and other data held by manufacturing companies in the sector make it an attractive target for both financially motivated attackers and other cybercriminals.

Other sectors that were increasingly targeted by cybercriminals included healthcare, the food and beverage industry, and academic institutions.

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We need a European security ecosystem that encompasses the whole of society

In an increasingly complex world, the European Union continues to be widely regarded as one of the safest places in the world. This was made clear in the European Commission’s report to the European Parliament, the European Council and the European Committee of the Regions of 24th of July.

The Commission invited the European Parliament and the Council to endorse the EU Security Union Strategy as the basis for joint cooperation and action on security for the next five years.

The document explains that globalisation, free movement and the digital transformation continue to bring prosperity, make our lives easier, and spur innovation and growth. But alongside these benefits come inherent risks and costs. There are victims of terrorism, organised crime, the drugs trade and human trafficking, all direct threats to citizens and our European way of life.

Cyber-attacks and cybercrime continue to rise. Security threats are also becoming more complex:

  • They feed on the ability to work cross-border and on interconnectivity.
  • They exploit the blurring of the boundaries between the physical and digital world.
  • They exploit vulnerable groups, social and economic divergences.
  • Attacks can come at a moment’s notice and may leave little or no trace.
  • Both state and non-state actors can deploy a variety of hybrid threats.
  • What happens outside the EU can have a critical impact on security inside the EU.

The new EU Security Union Strategy lays the foundations for a security ecosystem that encompasses the whole of European society. It is based on the knowledge that security is a shared responsibility. Indeed, security is an issue that affects everyone. All government bodies, businesses, social organisations, institutions, and citizens must fulfil their responsibilities for making our societies safer.

Nowadays, security problems have to be viewed from a much broader perspective than in the past. We must overcome false distinctions between the digital and physical. The EU Security Union Strategy brings together the full range of security needs and focuses on the most critical areas for EU security in the coming years.

It also recognises that security threats do not respect geographical boundaries and that there is increasing interconnection between internal and external security. In this context, the EU must cooperate with international partners to safeguard the whole of the EU, and the implementation of the Strategy must be taken forward in full coherence with EU external action.

European security is linked to our fundamental values. All the actions and initiatives proposed in this Strategy will fully respect the fundamental European rights and values. These are the foundations of the European way of life, and they must remain at the core of all our work.

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No improvements to public safety in Peru

Recent surveys on the perception of public safety conducted by the Instituto de Estudios Peruanos (IEP – Institute of Peruvian Studies) indicate that the Peruvian citizenry’s perception of its security did not change between 2015 and 2019.

However, despite the results of these surveys, statistics from the Instituto Nacional de Estadística e Informática (INEI – Peruvian National Institute of Statistics and Information) paint an entirely different picture. According to the statistics, the annual percentage of people who fell victim to crime dropped, from 36% in 2013 to 27.5% in 2018.

Despite this seemingly contradictory data, the citizenship professes it continues to feel afraid. The INEI itself has published the latest data from September 2018-February 2019, which unequivocally confirms that 86.6% of Peruvians believe they will fall victim to a criminal act. And that figure rises to 89% in the 30 to 44-year-old age group.

Analysing the perception of public safety by territories reveals several regions where more than 90% of the population are scared they will be targeted by criminals. Arequipa, for example, where the figure is 93.2%, the province of Lima where it stands at 92%, or Huancavelica at 91.3%.

Serious in-depth studies are needed to identify the reasons behind this lack of confidence in public safety. And this is confirmed by sociologist Lucía Dammert in her study on the perception of safety in Peru.

Dammert believes the constant changes of ministers and their teams, as well as the rotation of leadership within the Policía Nacional del Perú (Peruvian National Police Force), make it difficult to identify political strategies. It’s hard to evaluate the various initiatives and priorities due to the constant changes.

Another issue is that police coverage is insufficient, and citizens feel unprotected. Furthermore, the justice system is ineffective and levels of impunity are high. The prison system neither punishes nor rehabilitates, which means the police are forced to act harshly, and this is not an effective policy for dealing with the problem.

Notably, despite high levels of domestic violence, especially against women, citizens identify the street as the place where they feel most vulnerable. As a consequence, they choose to lock themselves in their homes and limit their lives on the street; a reality that’s problematic for democratic coexistence.

In addition, corruption is omnipresent in the country’s institutions, which need to build their legitimacy based on just and effective actions. Failure to achieve this leads to a general feeling of vulnerability.

Lastly, Peru sits at the apex of the main organised crime routes. Its citizens see how illegal markets such as mining, logging and prostitution continue to thrive. Yet, the country still refuses to adopt any public policies to deal with those issues.

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